Hey, kids, let’s gather some data

Among the tools for networked journalism I’m wishing for is a simple one for creating collaborative data bases.

When the Brian Lehrer Show mobilized the people formerly known as its audience to find out the prices of groceries across New York, they entered their findings in blog comments, which were laboriously compiled by hand. How much better it would be if the show had a simple data tool — as simple as blogs and wikis — to set up the basic fields their reporters could have used to report back. It would also be wonderful if that data could then be searched; if calculations could be run against it (give me the mean, the average); if it could visualized in charts; and if it could be exported for mashups (e.g., plotting it on Google Maps).

I don’t know whether this is it. But looking at my referrers this morning, I saw that someone N Levels, a startup, had created a form to gather data I asked for earlier: a collaborative data base of wi-fi speeds and prices in hotels. Here’s a description of N Levels that others of you will understand better than I.

The goal of N Levels is to enable users to create their own “information networks” that overlay and complement today’s web page and hyperlink structure. By information network, we mean a set of objects that are connected by relationships, forming a directed graph.

An object is a collection of properties which represents “something” – it could be a physical entity, animal, person, concept, idea, or absolutely anything. A relationship is a label that defines how two objects are related to each other – for example parent-child, location, containment, etc. An object and its possible relationships is defined by its schema, or “object type”. By having well-defined schema, it becomes easy for humans and software to traverse, consume, and extend an information network.

I was talking about such tools for collaborative journalism I wish someone would build with Clay Shirky when he came to talk and share his wisdom with my entrepreneurial journalism class. Clay’s students could do it and we’re talking about that.

Here’s another one I want: When a reporter, pro or am, uses a camera phone to take a picture — or, for that matter, to upload text, video, audio, anything — wouldn’t it be wonderful to attach the data the device knows: time and date, of course, and also GPS. This then allows gangs of reporters to submit information that can be plotted on maps and timelines and then associated with other data. See this Dutch experiment in which reporters were given mobile phones that fed through a server that did some of this.

And, of course, once news and data is in such a system, it can also be retrieved by location. See Socialight’s brand new service in London: Text 88811 and your GPS phone will give you nearby establishments and also fellow users’ notes.

(And that reminds me of my lunchtime conversation yesterday with Fred Wilson and Brad Burnham about the big trends we’re all watching. One of them is the tying of web to real things and places. Fred took a picture of me on his phone and thanks to Dave Winer’s programming sent it to Flickr and onto Twitter. I said that photo would be so much richer if it had the GPS attached and then folks could see where we were eating and eventually who’s nearby. But I digress.)

What other tools of networked journalism do you wish for?