Wow, what an intense day at the Transparent Text symposium! I won’t try to give detailed summaries of the talks–videos will be posted after the conference, and you can get a pretty good picture from the live tweet stream at #tt09. Instead, I’ll try to capture my personal highlights and reactions.
I’ll start with Deputy U.S. CTO Beth Noveck‘s keynote about the Open Government Initiative. First, the very existence of such an initiative is incredible, given the culture of secrecy traditionally associated with Washington. Second, I like the top priority of releasing raw data so that other people can work on analyzing it, visualizing it, and generally making it more accessible either to the general public or to particular interest groups. This is very much what I had in mind in January when I posted “Information Sharing We Can Believe In” and I’m glad to see tangible progress. I was never a big fan of faith-based initiatives.
The next session was a group of talks about watchdogs and accountability–people looking at how to ensure government transparency from the outside. New York Times editor Aron Pilhofer and software developer Jeremy Ashkenas talked about DocumentCloud, an ambitious project to enable exploratory search for news documents on the open web. Sunlight Foundation co-founder and executive director Ellen Miller offered a particularly compelling example of the power of visualization: a graph correlating the campaign contributions and earmark associated with a congressman under investigation. But my favorite presenter in this section was ProPublica‘s Amanda Michel, whose thoughts about a “human test of transparency” are worth a talk in themselves. For now, I recommend you look at the two projects she discussed: Stimulus Spot Check and Off the Bus.
After lunch, we shifted gears from government transparency to more of a focus on text. The first of the two afternoon sessions was entitled “Analyzing the Written Record” and featured Matthew Gray from Google Books, Tom Tague from Open Calais (a free text annotation service that almost all of the previous speakers raved about), and Ethan Zuckerman from Harvard’s Berkman Center. All of the talks were solid, but Ethan’s was outstanding. I blogged about his Media Cloud project back in March, but it’s come a long was in the past six months and is doing something I’ve been waiting years to see someone do: comparing how different news organizations select and cover news.
The final session was about visualization. David Small offered a presentation about literally transparent text that was, in the words of Marian Dörk, “refreshingly non-utilitarian and visually stimulating”. Ben Fry showed the power of visualizing changes in a document over time–specifically, a project called “the preservation of favoured traces” that illustrates the evolution of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But, as expected, IBM’s Many Eyes researchers Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg stole the show with an incredibly informative and entertaining presentation about the visualization of repetition in text. No summary can do it justice, so I urge you to watch the video when it is available.
After all that, we enjoyed a nice reception at the IBM Center for Social Software. I’m incredibly grateful to IBM for organizing and sponsoring this event, and to Martin Wattenberg for being so kind as to invite me. I’ll try to earn my keep in my 5 minutes at the “Ignite-style” session tomorrow morning.