How we found your best place to live
You should live in Liverpool.
The quiz we built for The Sunday Times’s Best Places says so. Says so for you - you being the one who indicated affordable housing, fast broadband and clean air as ‘very important’ living factors. Or ‘you’ with your sunshine and starry skies - you should live in Whitby.
Intrigued? Maybe even a little surprised? Good. Job done. We didn’t build this quiz with the bold assumption that you would pack your bags tomorrow and move. We simply wanted to give you, and the rest of our readers, an accessible way of exploring various datasets on housing. You find out where you could live if certain factors were extremely important to you and in turn, you find out the best cities for certain living factors.
All thanks to a Greek genius who lived 2,300 years ago….
Eleven different datasets were collected for this quiz - data measuring starry skies, concentration of singles and the like (see the full list here). These were linked to over 2.5 million postcodes using the open source software R. The data was then aggregated at a postcode district level, resulting in over 3,000 locations which now make up the possible answers for the quiz.
In some cases, as for the sunshine and satellite light emission data, it was necessary to reproject the data, calculate the postcode district centroids and match it with the nearest data point on a map - an exercise that allowed us to explore the power of Quantum GIS, a geographical open source software.
We were nearly there but still had a challenge in front of us. We had 11 questions for our readers, corresponding to the 11 categories measuring the ‘best place to live’, and we had about 3,000 places in our database. But we still had to find a way to match readers specifications to these results.
Thanks to Euclid, the Greek mathematician who, in 300 BC, formalised a way to measure multidimensional distances, we found our answer. His work allowed us to link readers’ answers to the quiz to our database of places to live.
Our massive tribute to Euclid
We applied the minimum squared Euclidean distance on our 11 dimensions in order to find our readers’ closest match.
After some testing, we found that the sliders used to respond to the questions needed more variation. So to put more weight to stronger choices, we decided to fine-tune Euclid’s formula by applying a transformation (y=x^5) to the users inputs.
Our final tweak was now in place and as you see it now, our quiz functions so that you can adjust your specifications to find your best place from over 3,000 locations in our database - all thanks to Euclid and his 2,300 year old formula.
To make sure readers would explore more of the dataset, a random selection between the top three places was added to the algorithm. Therefore, the first result you see is only one of your top three places. Hit return another couple times to see other top places for you to live.
Thanks for reading,
@StefioCeccon - Data journalist for The Times and Sunday Times Data Team
Our first Google+ Hangout - Good of the Game
Last week, The Times carried out its first ever Google+ Hangout on air.
The Good of the Game discussion was chaired by chief football correspondent Oliver Kay and featured chief sports correspondent Matt Dickinson, football writer Rory Smith and deputy football correspondent Matt Hughes.
What we did
Good of the Game was a five-part Times Sport investigation into the future of English football. Senior football writers looked at various aspect of football in this country and put across their ideas for reform. The findings were brought together in the shape of a manifesto launched in The Times on Wednesday 5th March, the day England played Denmark in a friendly match at Wembley.
On Wednesday afternoon, four of our senior football journalists debated their conclusion live on YouTube. Sports fans put their questions to the panel on Twitter, by using #goodofthegame and through the comments section on thetimes.co.uk.
I also contacted football bloggers to tell them to spread the word. The Swansea Way published a piece about the hangout.
What we learnt
Hangouts are cool - the feedback from our experiment has largely been positive. There has already been interest from several departments, who are keen to use the technology to broadcast to the world. At the moment, however, quality and not quantity is the name of the game.
Readers want to make a connection - those commenting during the hangout felt it was great to see the journalists and watch them on a screen instead of reading their words in a match report, or on a webchat. It would be difficult to replace all the webchats with hangouts, but it’s nice to see there is a demand.
What we’ll do next time
Promotion in advance - getting the word out early is massively important. The planning state also involved preparing the writers and making sure they had the right equipment to broadcast. This meant that the event wasn’t promoted as well as it could have been.
The timing - the event took place at 1pm, which may not be the best time for a video debate. It would be great to experiment with a similar debate in the evening (maybe 7pm or 8pm). Evening events have worked well previously (Book Club for example). Above all, it’s important that we don’t expect people to come to us, but rather that we go to people and work around them.
It was an great fun to work on The Times’s first ever Google+ Hangout, and I’m looking forward to working on many more exciting hangouts in the future.
The last word, on this occasion, belongs to David Ginsberg.
Umar Farooq, Communities and Social Media Journalist
Build The News event update
On the weekend of Feb 22/23 The Times and Sunday Times Digital Team ran its first coding event.
Named Build The News, we invited 10 student teams and our two titles to compete in four categories over two days to see who could produce the most disruptive / useful / innovative new way to find information or tell stories digitally.
After almost 14 hours of idea generation, sense checking, designing and coding our attendees had to present back and show us what they had made and why.
We wanted the students to think very carefully about solving a particular problem - whether this was for journalists in the newsroom or for readers on digital platforms.
The teams rose to the challenge in spectacular fashion, some bit off more than they could chew and had to pivot to narrower solutions, others faced technical challenges that ate up precious time, two lost their developers at short notice.
Yet they were all still standing at the end to pitch their ideas to our judging panel.
The four categories we asked teams to focus on were:
Think about long form journalism on the web across multiple devices. How do you make sure the experience is immersive, readable and doesn’t distract from the story?
The power of the crowd is growing with the internet - can you develop a tool or platform that allows newsrooms to campaign effectively on issues that matter to their readers?
The Sunday tradition of sharing sections of the paper, the magazine and supplements around the kitchen table is evolving - can you think of an idea that enhances the reading/sharing experience?
It’s easier than ever to find out what readers / citizens / protesters think and feel - how do you make it easier for newsrooms to find the details and people that matter around big events and moments?
There was an fantastic atmosphere in the room all weekend with groups working incredibly hard to keep their ideas on track, often realising that they could simplify solutions further both technically and for their proposed users.
On the Saturday night we took everyone out for dinner and drinks so the teams could properly socialise with each other - the first day had been very intense and we wanted to make sure people were relaxed before day two began.
12 teams presented back to the group as a whole on Sunday afternoon; 10 student teams and two title ones. The title teams were only competing for bragging rights and it was closely fought, with The Sunday Times winning with their Trust.it concept.
We then had a judges prize for best presentation which went to Winchester with Longform.ly
Category winners were:
Crowd - Birmingham City University/HS2
Stretch - Kingston/Slide
Noise - Goldsmiths/Be There
Digest - University of Birmingham/Digest
Event winner - City, Imperial/Low Pass
Overall we were impressed with the ideas all the teams pursued, they had really taken to heart our advice to focus on solving a problem, rather than features for the sake of it - a good lesson for any newsroom.
We’ll be blogging in more detail about each of the ideas shortly as well as publishing a social roundup.
Thanks to everyone that helped make the weekend a success:
Main venue: BL-NK
Food: Speck Mobile
T-shirts: Action Advertising
Evening venue: Corney and Barrow
The Times and Sunday Times does FLOSS: Letter-spacing CKEditor plugin
While developing a typography widget for the long form content tool I’m working on, I was struck by how little ability modern WYSIWYG editor libraries have in terms of easily modifying text tracking, or “letter-spacing” as it’s known in CSS.
This kind of astonished me — is web typography really at such a nascent stage? Project like kerning.js are great steps forward in terms of bringing serious typographic concepts to the web, but a quick survey of most WYSIWYG editors shows little care paid beyond the simplest of formatting options.
Given as I was already using the terrific and massively popular CKEditor for the other text formatting aspects of my project, I decided to write a quick plugin to let users pick ±10px tracking. The result is CKEditor-Letterspacing (GitHub), which we’re releasing today as a FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) project.
I may refine it slightly over time, though my intent is to keep it as simple as possible. Let me know if you find it useful!
-Ændrew Rininsland (@aendrew), news developer
Iteration in the newsroom
There are a great many challenges in further integrating digital thinking into our newsrooms, but one of the easiest to overcome is the immediate reduction of needless jargon.
The Times in particular has a justified reputation as an arbiter of clear, elegant and grammatical writing. Being circumlocutious and conveying little that plain English cannot, jargon goes against these long-held principles. By its nature jargon is intended to be elitist and designed specifically to keep out those who are unfamiliar with it. Our aim is to be as inclusive as possible, especially when working alongside colleagues from print.
One piece of jargon that does seem to have stuck, however, is Iteration.
The term iteration seems to be almost unique in the fact that it is a useful piece of jargon: certainly ‘the incremental repetition of a process with the hope of getting closer to a set goal’ is far harder to remember, let alone say.
The idea of iterative working is obviously one integral to agile digital product development and deployment. But as a team we occupy an exciting position in the middle ground between the traditional newsroom and a small technology company: we’re journalists, but we’re also product managers.
So we’re more than familiar with concepts of iterative development, like Eric Ries’ idea of Build-Measure-Learn:
Yet we are part of an environment where the idea of working to a deadline and then sending a completed newspaper to the printing press is still an important one.
You don’t soft launch newspapers every day, or at least not ones with a combined history of 321 years, as with The Times and Sunday Times.
So our project deadlines are often defined by news events like, for example, our Nelson Mandela obituary. They are also set according to print deadlines: our Malala Yousafzai piece was built to coincide with the publication of her autobiography.
In both of these instances we wanted to launch a completed editorial project, with no need or time for iteration. But we found that this approach meant that we occasionally spent a lot of time building things, launching them and then moving on to another, different project.
One answer to this problem is an iterative approach.
Take our Fashion Companion App. Built on a basic code framework we’d created last year for a Conference Companion tool, the latest iteration of the idea added new functionality and an increased editorial voice by giving journalists the ability to file short bulletins or news headlines directly into the app.
This part of the process was an obvious one: we wanted to improve on something we’d already built. The next was far more daunting: we wanted to launch something incomplete but allow our readers to help shape it.
So instead of aiming to deliver a finished product to deadline, the approach we took was to use what we’d learnt from the Conference Companion to identify our new editorial requirements. Then we spent three weeks creating an MVP, published it and are now iterating on it throughout the four fashion weeks in New York, London, Paris and Milan.
The fact that it is a live app means that we were able to use operational audience data to make decisions about improvements or tweaks to the product and also to decide when the app will be ‘finished’ and we can move on to our next project.
This move to iterative development was a daunting cultural shift, even if it’s one that has already been made by the Guardian and New York Times in releasing beta versions of their digital products.
But really the idea of iteration is one that is easy for journalists to understand.
We iterate on the news all of the time: a story breaks. We report it. We file a more detailed followup or a new line. Analysis of audience data might lead the story in new directions or extend its lifespan.
So the story might start with an editor or a reporter but then becomes shaped by the audience according to their interests and appetite for further updates.
In other words our readers interact with it our products, further helping us provide the most useful and interesting content for them. This isn’t a new idea, of course: it was one of Tim O’Reilly’s core principles of Web 2.0. But the idea of making news products live and then improving on them in front of the readers’ eyes is an exciting one for both us and, hopefully, for them.
Now all that we need to do is to come up with a jargon-free alternative to the word iteration itself.
Pat Long, Head Of News Development
Front Row fashion app
Earlier this week we soft launched a new fashion week experience for our subscribers. It’s called Front Row and it looks like this
It is designed by Eoin Tunstead and coded by Callum Christie & Aendrew Rininsland.
It pulls together a number of feeds including twitter accounts, custom text and photo updates from our journalists and eventually Instagram, Vine and Tout.
It’s an evolution of Conference Companion a project we pushed out last September.
We’ll post about the code behind the app soon - in the meantime get your fashion gossip fix at frontrow.thesundaytimes.co.uk
The Times and Sunday Times digital might spend a lot of time working with new technology but sometimes we like to reflect how the papers used to be produced. So this week, we ventured to the News UK text and pictures archives in Bow, East London, to take a look around.
Steve Baker, Information Services Manager from the Group Publishing Services team, was kind enough to organise the visit and Picture Librarians Marc Russell and MJ Jennings generously gave up their time to show us round the labyrinthine archive. We posted some pictures to our fledgling Instagram account and on Twitter to give our followers a sense of what goes on behind the scenes at the archive and they proved to be very popular. The photos here were taken on a Canon 5D MkIII with a 24-70mm f2.8 L lens.
We’re hoping to do another #timestour to our artefact archive in Enfield, North London, and perhaps one of our new offices in London Bridge when we move in this summer soon so stay tuned for more snaps.
- benwhitelaw and Owen Jones
Vining The Times front page
The idea of an animated front page was put to us by Jon Hill, Design Editor at The Times, who was keen to explore a new way of presenting our newspaper’s front page and snippets of content through social media.
Vine has proven to be a great tool in relaying short form pieces to our audience, in particularly with illustrating data such as our Budget and Mulled Vine projects.
What’s great is that we can publish this prior to the newspaper hitting the news stands and so it can provide a teaser for anyone wanting to get a insight into the next day’s printed edition.
The Vine has a basic format in place that maintains the tradition of having the front page on view at the end, and begins by highlighting a core news element (a photograph or headline) that then builds into the final design via some simple transitions.
We started by analysing previous front pages and the compositions that had been produced over the past month. We took into into account picture crops and type arrangements that we might encounter and then came up with a loose structure that could be played with depending on what the content might be for each edition.
It’s important that this doesn’t become the same animation with different content each time and there is still scope to try new things.
The process of producing these Vines is relatively simple, at around 6pm the layout of the front page starts to take shape and offers us an insight into the structure that needs to be used.
By 8pm we have the final front page design from the news desk, allowing us to start dissecting the content and applying it to the framework that we’ve put together. With a bit of handy work in After Effects we can create the final clip ready to publish at around 10pm.
With the first one in the bag and plenty more ideas starting to roll in off the back of this, it’s clear that there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The good thing is that we’ve found a neat new way to publish our front page on social media.
Fraser Lyness @fraserlyness
Developing “The Man Who Changed The World”
One of the goals of our team has consistently been to push the boundaries of how The Times and Sunday Times creates stimulating visual content for the web and iPad. Partially as a response to industry trends and partially as a way of breaking new ground for our various platforms, long form content has been a clear focus since I started as a developer in May last year.
While we’ve produced a number of long form features in that time, the one that started it all was our obituary for Nelson Mandela, which we published last month and began work on last August when it was apparent he was in ill health. Working under the need to be prepared in case Mandela’s condition turned for the worse, the main thrust of it was completed in about three weeks, with several more weeks dedicated to bug squashing and cross-browser testing.
We archived the piece when Mandela was released from hospital in September, but by that time we had a fully-working and tested project. As such, our work on it predates even our earliest long form-style pieces, particularly those on chemical warfare and Christina Lamb’s experiences as biographer to Malala Yousafzai.
How we started
The Mandela coverage was particularly embryonic as it was all hand-coded using the Twitter Bootstrap framework, with Tabletop.js being used for content management. This contrasts with our later attempts, which have been focused on creating tools that will eventually enable non-coder digital producers to build similar content without needing a developer to work alongside, managed via the popular WordPress CMS.
In fact, a lot of the individual elements (Most designed by Mario Cameira) have been translated into modular WordPress widget templates, which in turn have been used in some of the features we’ve produced since Mandela. By forcing us to think in terms of modular widgets that get added to our content suite after every project, our system has quickly accumulated a wide range of design elements that can be used without any extra coding effort on our behalf.
Challenges we faced
Beyond that, the Mandela coverage had a few unique aspects. The one I’m most proud of is the Hyperaudio-driven narrated introduction.
Initially, we only had the text of Ben Okri’s fantastic introduction opening the piece, but after some discussion realised it might be possible to record the Booker Prize winner reading his work aloud.
We were able to capture the audio when Okri visited our offices, I then used subtitle software to create time signatures for each line in the introduction. The resulting .srt file was then used by Hyperaudio to create the effect in the final product. While it took roughly a day or so of development time, I’m rather pleased with how it turned out in the end — the effect of watching Okri’s words light up as you hear them in his voice is rather powerful.
There are also substantially more scroll-driven special effects in the Mandela feature than our other pieces, which are more optimised for tablet. Part of the learning process was realising which desktop-based effects worked on iPad (Which is increasingly our subscribers preferred method of reading The Times).
While scroll-driven special effects are relatively normal and straight-forward when optimising for modern desktop computers, the event model specific to touch-driven devices makes these effects juddery at best, and nearly unusable at worst. Given this, the few scroll-driven effects in the Mandela piece (namely the background change during the prison section and the fading in of the sidebar blocks) are designed to be fairly simple and consistent between platforms.
I can’t stress enough how great an honour it was to work on a piece designed to commemorate the life and struggles of such an amazing leader and human being. Forgetting for a moment all the visual flourishes, the content really does speak for itself; by clicking the “T” logo in the upper-right corner, one can see the extent of The Times’ Mandela coverage, which the long form feature acted as a portal to. Being able to develop around such amazing journalism — both new and historical — is easily one of the best parts of my job.
It’s an absolutely fascinating time to be an editorial web developer given the way Snow Fall has turned news content presentation on its head, and our journey here at The Times and Sunday Times in creating visually-stimulating long form feature content has really only just begun. Make sure to watch this space.
Ændrew Rininsland is a news developer with The Times and Sunday Times. He tweets via @aendrew and occasionally blogs on Tumblr.
Sunday Times NHS reform campaign wins award
Last week The Sunday Times won Campaign of the Year for its NHS Reform campaign at the Press Gazette British Journalism Awards.
The campaign has engaged thousands of readers since the launch in July, with 9,000 committing their support and over 500 sending in stories of their personal experiences of weekend care.
Congratulations to everyone that has worked on the campaign so far