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Combining Technology and Journalism Students

Unusual class develops news applications for media members and public

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December 8, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- What happens when you combine the storytelling skills of journalism students with the programming skills of computer science students? At Northwestern University, they create news applications that savvy media companies and government agencies might well want to use.

“In only 10 weeks, five teams of journalism and engineering students managed to build a working, web-based system,” said Medill Associate Professor Jeremy Gilbert, who co-teaches Journalism and Technology. “Among their creations is HamTracker, which locates earmark spending by the federal government, and TwitterDebate, which pulls and presents opposing tweets of current presidential candidates on topics such as foreign policy and immigration.”

The result of a partnership between Medill and the McCormick School of Engineering, the class challenges journalism and computer science majors to develop new media tools.

In the recently ended academic term, 19 students created one-of-a-kind news apps that push the boundaries of narrative, investigative techniques through the use of artificial intelligence, said Gilbert and co-teacher Larry Birnbaum. Birnbaum is co-director of the Intelligent Information Laboratory in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

HamTracker, an extraction engine and search interface, uses the Library of Congress’ THOMAS database and metadata from the Sunlight Foundation for validating and fact-checking earmark spending information. Medill senior Katie Park, one of HamTracker’s creators, said while the government has made efforts to make earmark spending more transparent, it remains difficult to access. “HamTracker is a tool that both journalists and the public potentially can use to their benefit,” she said.

Gilbert believes HamTracker will make it possible for developers to use its data in ways its student developers cannot yet imagine. Programmers will also have access to a free application programming interface (API).

In addition to HamTracker and TwitterDebate, the students developed MetroVote, an application that aggregates and presents dynamic information for candidates running in local elections. MetroVote users can configure their own races using their local candidates, provided they have a social media presence. 

Students also developed Meeting Messenger, a web interface that aggregates LinkedIn and company information to help people prepare for meetings, and DriveThru, an iPhone app that pulls breaking news abstracts and stories from The New York Times API and displays them in easily digestible segments for busy commuters.

“The class teaches students how to go from concept to proof-of-concept prototype and how to think about new kinds of news technology,” Birnbaum said. “For some, the projects were instrumental in getting great internships this summer.” The class is supported by the McCormick Foundation, Knight Foundation and National Science Foundation.