Slideshow: Presentations from the interactives session

As part of our news:rewired follow-up coverage, we’ll be posting slideshows of the speakers’ presentations for those who missed it or simply want to recap.

We’ll be adding presentations as our speakers send them over to us.

The interactive session session featured Ollie Williams, Olympics reporter for BBC Sport; Rob Minto, interactive editor, Financial Times; Francis Irving, developer, ScraperWiki.

Rob Minto:

What is an interactive graphic?

Ollie Williams

I’m Ollie, and I’m an Olympic sports reporter for BBC Sport. Most of my job is going out and reporting, but I’ve had a bit of a sideline in interactives for various BBC websites and used to work for the BBC News website on the editorial side of making them, so I’m here to talk through some of the things we’ve done and, perhaps more relevantly, what I think we should be doing more of in future, and how interactives may change.

First, it feels odd to be talking about niche and specialist journalism as a member of the BBC, which you might think is about as mainstream as reporting gets. But working on the Olympic Games occupies strange territory: it’s very much a niche market, in fact it’s about 40 niche markets each catering to very different sports, for two years at a time, and then for a couple of weeks EVERYONE wants a piece of the action during a Summer or Winter Olympics. So everything you do, from straight reporting to building interactives, should appeal to handball and taekwondo fanatics as much as it does football fans with at best a passing interest in those other sports.

The first link is our Beijing 2008 interactive map, from the last Olympics. The first lesson with this is the pace of change of interactives, because this already feels a little old-school and tired, but at the time it did things that felt quite groundbreaking for a website and operation of our size – tracking reporters with live geotagged Twitter updates on the map, before geotagging tweets became something that was easy to do, on top of a comprehensive venue guide, with blog posts appearing according to venue as well. It had a nice “live” feel to it – but it was tough to build. We nearly killed the entire BBC website when we launched it, and it needed a lot of manual effort to keep it updated, plus our reporters in Beijing spent ages staring up at the sky for a GPS fix to add coordinates to their tweets. It wasn’t ideal, and this is an important point with any interactive – plan how much work is going to be involved in the long term. I’m not saying we got it vastly wrong, but given you normally want your interactive to continue to appeal to people, and be a resource they can keep coming back to, that means thinking about how it evolves and the effort that will take.

From that point of view, my next link is a slightly more refined model. This is a simple world map showing where all the football players in the Premier League were born in 2009 and, for comparison, where the players in the 1989/90 season were born. You can filter by team and season, to get an idea of just how vast the changes that have globalised English football have been.

This was a one-hit wonder – it didn’t need updating, it just needed a shedload of data entry and research to get it going. We promoted it well on its first day and it had a long tail, people kept coming back and it did the rounds on sites like Twitter, which is what many websites want their interactives to do. The only way your interactive is going to get the buzz you’re looking for is if it’s interesting and it tells people something they didn’t already know, or couldn’t find elsewhere. There are plenty of news organisations copying interactives that have been made elsewhere first, when I believe you need to be doing something new – and which makes sense to do. Another example would be the BBC Berkshire flood map, from back in 2007, which was the first interactive I created (using Google MyMaps), pooling photos and video from users alongside the BBC’s reports and flood warnings.

So the football map is a largely static (in terms of not being updated) interactive that retained a bit of life because it did something different. At the other extreme, my fourth link is our live map of the G20 in London last year, which involved me sat behind a desk operating some mapping software for 12 hours a day, taking phone calls from reporters, processing emails and taking video from the BBC website as soon as it appeared.

This was a bit rough-and-ready but it took an environment well-known to a lot of our readers, and gave a strong sense of developments over time and where the action was happening… like a heat map of editorial over London, that you could come back to every half an hour and something would be different.

There is a huge temptation to spend a lot of money developing something that would automate this… but I think it would fail. When you’re trying to use an interactive to tell a complex story, you need manual editorial control to get the best results. I could pick and choose what we showed on this map, what got prominence and how long things stayed on it. So I’m in essence crafting a story on this page, it’s not just glorified data entry. Now obviously you have to have the resources to afford the manual editorial input, but I strongly urge you: if possible, make sure your interactives are led by a human pair of eyes that understands you’re telling a story, not just presenting data. the New York Times do this very well, in the way they lay out interactives to tell stories, and I’d encourage you to look at theirs as excellent examples.

Very quickly, one or two other examples to illustrate a final point I’ve not tackled yet, which is the interactivity of your interactive. My examples so far didn’t really involve letting the audience directly contribute to the interactive, but that will definitely be an ambition for London 2012. My final link is the BBC World Service’s Save Our Sounds map from last year. Nothing to do with me I might add, but beautifully executed, a clear, moderated system for content submission, and an exceptional end product.

We’re drafting the BBC Sport website’s social media strategy for London 2012, and interactives – which our audience can not only use to explore stories, but contribute their own and shape that interactive experience for others – will be at the heart of that. For all the growing buzz over London 2012, it will remain a largely untapped niche market for some time yet. The great joy of working in that environment is that the possibility exists to do something different, and to find and present information that nobody else has, in a compelling way that nobody’s thought of before – then get people to share in that. And that’s what I hope to do over the next two years.

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