Developers should hack on the news

Dan Sinker from the Knight/Mozilla OpenNews crew threw down a prompt for developers working in news to explain why we work in news. A lot of awesome people have replied with their takes on why developers in news are important..

I’m going to take a slightly different tack. For software developers, it’s a no-brainer that software can and has changed the world in several important ways (even if you don’t subscribe to the hubris that technology is the lens through which everything can and should change).

Both the startup and open source philosophies are predicated on the idea that we can make the world a better place with software.

Lets instead talk about why developers should work in the news. Startups are sold as a venue for experimentation and a chance at success. But we should ask ourselves, are startups the only, or best place for developers to experiment, learn from others and do something that matters?

With that context let me tell you how last Monday went for me.

I started out the day writing javascript for DocumentCloud, the 100% open source platform out of which Backbone.js was extracted. Around ten, we got a phone call from an Al Jazeera English user who needed some assistance with getting a document setup on deadline (we made it, just under the wire).

I learned after publication that the document we were working on was the leaked Abbottabad Commission Report. The report was an analysis of how Osama Bin Laden managed to use Pakistan as a refuge for years and the circumstances leading to US incursion into Pakistan to kill OBL.

Over the next 48 hours, reaction to Al Jazeera’s scoop bounced across the world. Pakistani journalists, US reporters and analysts poured over the details of the report which included interviews with OBL’s family on the the Seal Team Six raid from their perspective, and reporting on the fact that OBL was pulled over for a traffic violation, and wasn’t recognized and/or arrested.

That’s just a single document. The Guardian used DocumentCloud to post the documents they received from Edward Snowden. Before that they posted documents from the News of the World scandal and more. DevelopmentSeed built an entire mining contract review site for the WorldBank and Guinean government on top of DocumentCloud. Propublica has built an open source crowdsourcing platform on top of DocumentCloud’s APIs to fight against poor government disclosure policies.

The Wall Street Journal has built one off experiments with DocumentCloud to create self-directed tours through sales brochures for surveillance hardware & software, and annotated a copy of President Obama’s State of the Union address splicing video clips to notes.

Projects like DocumentCloud are part of an ecosystem of tools which have never before existed in journalism. Devs on these projects can help make journalists more powerful and dangerous, and information better accessible to citizens. While a vanguard has already proceeded us (people like Simon Willison and Adrian Holovaty of Django fame, David Nolen and Mike Bostock of the NYT, or DocumentCloud’s own emeritus Jeremy Ashkenas), there are so many more ways that developers can help improve the news and the civic sphere. Our forbearers have blazed a trail, but there’s still a civilization to build.

We know the impact we can have in the news. We also know how much more there is to do. If you’d like to help out, even if it’s just a year stint, apply for a Knight/Mozilla fellowship, or if you’re interested in DocumentCloud, email us at jobs@documentcloud.org

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