Nick Diakopoulos

Computational and Data Journalism

From digital publishing to news stories generated by algorithms, technology is playing an increasingly important role in journalism. In the HCIL, our members are exploring the role data analytics and information visualization can play in our understanding of current events and the stories we tell about them.

One HCIL member who is especially interested in these issues is Dr. Nicholas Diakopoulos, a Tow Fellow and an Assistant Professor in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. His research touches on the areas of algorithmic accountability, narrative data visualization, and social computing in the news.

For Diakopoulos, algorithmic accountability represents a vital area of computational journalism. As we rely more and more on automation, from autocomplete in our favorite search engines to the selection of ads we see online, the algorithms that make such automation possible become increasingly influential. The algorithms that develop these results should be easily understood by the average user, Diakopoulos believes, and his work seeks to elucidate the algorithms by which many of us live our lives. 

Nick Diakopoulos
Diakopoulos and his colleagues found that higher-ranked pages tended to represent candidates more favorably. Chart by Daniel Trielli, Sean Mussenden, and Nicholas Diakopoulos, via Slate.

Recently, he has been investigating the surge pricing practices of the rideshare company Uber. His findings suggest that, contrary to Uber’s claims that their practices encourage more drivers to get on the road, surge pricing may only redistribute drivers who are already working. Making this data accessible and transparent, he says, can be “of great value to consumers,” who deserve to be informed about price patterns that may not work in their best interests.

Transparency of this kind is not only important to consumers, either. Voters, too, benefit from a greater understanding of the algorithmic underpinnings of commonly-used resources, such as search engine bias. Writing in Slate recently, Diakopoulos and his colleagues in the College of Journalism explained the complex, “organic” process that leads Google results to favor Democratic presidential candidates over Republicans.

This kind of bias can have significant consequences, and understanding how search results are arrived at is crucial to voters’ ability to evaluate the information they encounter. As Diakopoulos and his colleagues put it, “The public needs to be more aware of search engine bias when getting political information, and Google itself needs to acknowledge its power.”

Diakopoulos is also interested in the role of social computing in journalism. In collaboration with fellow HCIL faculty member Dr. Niklas Elmqvist, Diakopoulos developed CommentIQ. Supported by a Knight Foundation Prototype Grant, the project examined behavior of New York Times online commenters in order to help newsroom moderators identify and promote high-quality, constructive comments. Diakopoulos would like to demonstrate to publishers that “investing in comments is in their best interest”, both from a financial standpoint and as a way of modeling intelligent, civil behavior online. News media  outlets have proved receptive, with newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post participating in the project.

Most recently, Diakopoulos launched a Twitter bot that selects anecdotes from the comments section of New York Times articles. The account, @AnecbotalNYT, uses CommentIQ to curate excerpts of commenters’ opinions and personal narratives. The bot helps to cut through the often noisy and, at times, discourteous discourse of the online comments section in order to highlight insightful or interesting responses.

Diakoplous’ work in computational journalism and algorithmic accountability exemplifies the unique perspective of the HCIL and its members. In his research, he is exploring not only what technology can accomplish, but how those accomplishments affect the public.


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Children are looking at a prototype

Tangible and Wearable Technology

One area of research that has seen exciting growth within the HCIL is the field of tangible computing. As devices become increasingly affordable, wearable technology is finding an endless array of applications, from the recreational to the educational, from interrogating social interactions to improving user experience. Faculty and graduate students with the HCIL are engaged in a variety of innovative projects aimed at using cutting-edge technology to improve users’ everyday lives.

Dr. Jon Froehlich is one HCIL faculty member whose research centers on this emerging field. An Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and co-founder of the HCIL’s Makeability Lab and Hackerspace, Froehlich has been involved in a number of projects exploring the social impacts of e-textiles and other tangle computing technology. One such project is Social Fitness Fabric, which displays runners’ speeds on their shirts. While devices such as Fitbit privately tracks users’ metrics, Social Fitness Fabric is intended to display users’ data where anyone might see it. Runners wearing the device reported that this more public display encouraged them to push themselves further and perform better.

Wearable technology is not only valuable in recreational context, however. Another project undertaken in the HCIL is exploring how embedded computing can be used as a teaching tool: BodyVis, developed by Froehlich and PhD student Leyla Norooz, helps children understand their anatomy and bodily functions through embedded computing. Through an iterative design process and co-design sessions with children ages 7-11, Norooz and Froelich created a t-shirt embellished with plush organs that make visible bodily processes like breathing and digestion. The garment is interactive, too, so users can remove organs to learn about different parts of the body. By encouraging interactive learning, BodyVis engages young learners and makes abstract concepts of anatomy concrete. BodyVis is currently supported by an NSF Cyberlearning grant, in collaboration with HCIL faculty Dr. Tamara Clegg.

Froehlich has overseen a number of tangible computing projects undertaken by graduate students, both in his Tangible Computing course and as part of research by students in the PhD and Master of Science in Human-Computer Interaction (HCIM) program. In each case, tangible and wearable technologies present opportunities to enrich our experiences and enhance the ways we engage with the objects around us. For instance, “I Like This Shirt“, developed in collaboration with Ladan Najafizadeh and Seokbin Kang, used touch sensors and LED displays to recreate in person the virtual experience of “liking” a social media post. The e-textile toolkit MakerShoe, developed in collaboration with Majeed Kazemitabaar, Leyla Norooz, and Mona Leigh Guha, allowed children to create personalized, interactive shoes by alleviating some of the challenges many younger novice users face with such projects.

Ultimately, Froehlich says, it’s not enough to think about tangible and wearable technologies simply about things we touch or wear. Instead, they should be regarded as a medium for enhancing and transforming the way people live their lives.

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