Posts Tagged ‘Google’

More awesome search tips from Google expert Daniel Russell, with real-world examples

Monday, July 1st, 2013
Daniel Russell, research master at Google

Daniel Russell, research master at Google

When a research scientist at Google offers to show you how to unlock the full potential of the powerful search engine, you pay attention.

Last year Daniel Russell spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Boston. Dan showed us search techniques that can make anyone a better researcher. Some tips I already knew. Others I thought I understood but didn’t. And some I had no idea existed.

I thought Dan’s talk was eye-opening — and others had the same reaction. My post about his presentation last year was widely shared, so there’s enormous interest to learn more about how Google works and how to use it effectively.

You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance. This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

Since that conference a year ago, Dan began offering online classes. I’ve had a year to practice many of these techniques. And about a week ago, Dan spoke again at the IRE conference in San Antonio with even more advice.

“You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance,” Dan said at his panel, Digging in with Google. “This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

I thought it’d be a good idea to compile some of the interesting new techniques, and revisit tips Dan discussed last year with some real-world examples of how journalists used them in actual news stories. Many of these methods also work on other search engines, such as Yahoo! and Bing.

These tips are for journalists, researchers, librarians and anyone else who wants to learn new ways to find information. Google will never replace the importance of shoe-leather reporting — knocking on doors and talking to real people. But Google can help reporters find the right doors to knock on and reveal surprising details about the people you’re talking to. Knowing how to find obscure information on the Internet is a vital skill for any journalist.


Become a Google power searcher: Google is now offering free search lessons online

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Google power search lessonsWow, a lot of people are very, very eager to learn how to search the web more effectively. My post about Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques has generated a ton of traffic and great reactions. And today we learn that Google is going to start offering lessons to people to become power searchers.

Course details:

Power Searching with Google is a free online, community-based course showcasing search techniques and how to use them to solve real, everyday problems. It features:

  • Six 50-minute classes.
  • Interactive activities to practice new skills.
  • Opportunities to connect with others using Google Groups, Google+, and Hangouts on Air.
  • Upon passing the post-course assessment, a printable Certificate of Completion will be emailed to you.
  • Guess what I just signed up for?

    How to solve impossible problems: Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques

    Thursday, June 21st, 2012

    Daniel Russell stood in front of a crowd of investigative journalists in Boston last week and showed us this picture of a random skyscraper in an unknown city:

    Google challenge by Daniel Russell

    Russell posed a riddle:

    What’s the phone number of the office where this picture was snapped?

    Let that sink in. He wasn’t asking for a phone number for the skyscraper in the picture, which sounds hard enough. He wanted the phone number of the precise office where the photographer was standing when the picture was taken.

    Nothing in that office was even in the photo. Yet in a few minutes, Russell, a research scientist at Google, revealed the answer by paying attention to small details and walking us through a series of smart Google searches.

    Daniel Russell, research scientist for Google“Once you know these tricks, you can solve problems that look impossible,” Russell said.

    There are plenty of Google search cheat sheets floating around. But it’s not often you get to hear advice directly from someone at Google who offers you his favorite search tools, methods and perspectives to help you find the impossible.

    Here are some of my favorite tips shared by Russell at the 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. Some of these techniques are powerful but obscure; others are well-known but not fully understood by everyone.

    Check out every insurance claim filed against the city of San Antonio

    Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

    What happens when you’re hit by a city vehicle and file an insurance claim against San Antonio? Now you can find out by searching a database that tracks every claim filed against the city in the past decade.

    I stumbled across this story by using Google’s advanced search options. Google lets you search specific websites for specific files and specific terms. So a way to find little-known databases and interesting stories is to search a government website for spreadsheets, pdf’s, and other type of documents.

    For example, let’s say you want to focus on the city of San Antonio. In Google’s search box, you’d type, to limit the results to pages from the city’s website. Then use “filetype” to focus on specific types of files. The term filetype:xls searches for spreadsheets. Filetype:doc searches for Microsoft Word documents. Filetype:pdf searches for … you guessed it, pdf files.

    You can do broad searches or get creative and add words you think might lead to interesting stuff. Check out this search with the term “injuries.”

    Advanced Google search results for the city of San Antonio

    One of the top results is a form for a vehicle accident report that is filled out by city employees whenever they’re involved in an accident. All the entries and check boxes in the form suggest this information is typed into a database of some kind. And if that’s the case, that means you can request the data, analyze it yourself, and see if there’s a story lurking in those numbers.

    Using the Texas Public Information Act, I asked for any database the city had that tracked insurance claims from vehicle accidents. The process took awhile and there was a lot of back and forth. At first, the city’s Risk Management Office only sent me a pdf with two categories of information: case numbers and dates. The format and info was worthless.

    But eventually they sent more complete spreadsheets that tracked the dollar amount of the claim, whether it was denied, and a brief description about what happened. It was interesting reading.

    No one outside City Hall had ever looked at this data before. Thanks to a nifty Google search, now everybody can.

    Remembering the Alamo — and the media’s role in its fate

    Monday, September 26th, 2011

    Reading Scott Huddleston’s latest update about the turmoil at the Alamo, I wondered how many people remember the roots of the problem and why the state of Texas got involved in the first place. I doubt casual readers know Scott deserves some of the credit for the changes — or the blame, depending on how you view the Alamo’s caretakers, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

    Scott Huddleston, reporter for the San Antonio Express-News


    Newspapers are very good at producing something we all know: the news article. But Scott has been writing article after article about the problems at the Alamo. In fact, his first story was published two years ago. Like many newspapers, we haven’t done a very good job tying those stories together online to give readers the context and history of the controversy. We’re not answering a basic question about the issue: How did we get here?

    Scott got involved when a tipster told him that some members of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas questioned the group’s leadership, and were forming their own splinter group to raise money for the Alamo.

    “I wanted the story to be more than ‘she said, she said,’” Scott told me. He began obtaining copies of contracts, emails, letters — anything that would shed light on what was going on at the Alamo. He found examples of questionable spending and a lack of focus. “Their biggest challenge was an inability to raise money for capital improvements,” Scott said.

    Sometimes a story is bigger than a single article

    Before his first article was published, Scott heard that the Dallas Morning News was working on its own story about troubles at the Alamo. Nothing gets a reporter’s heart pumping like another reporter chasing down the same story. He kept digging, partly because he didn’t want to get scooped by the Morning News.

    “I felt like I needed to be shaking the bushes just to keep up with them,” Scott said.

    After his first story about the rift was published, he filed an open records request with the state of Texas to find out how the Daughters were spending funds raised from license plates with Alamo themes. It turned out the Alamo only received a portion of the funds for upkeep.

    As more members of the Daughters publicly criticized the group’s leadership, some were expelled for speaking with the media, which led to more follow-up stories.

    Scott wrote at least 60 articles in the past two years that mentioned the Alamo and its troubled caretaker.

    “They deserve a lot of credit,” Scott said of the outspoken critics. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, also took a keen interest in the issue and eventually wrote a bill that shifted more oversight of the Alamo to the state. The bill became law on Sept. 1 and significantly altered the role of the Daughters. The Texas General Land Office now oversees the Alamo, and will determine what role the Daughters will play as a contractor of the state. If a contract between the state and the Daughters isn’t signed by Jan. 1, control of the Alamo and the site’s equipment and property acquired with state funds must be transferred to the Land Office.

    Scott wrote at least 60 articles in the past two years that mentioned the Alamo and its troubled caretaker. Most stories were about the turmoil within the organization and its track record at the Alamo. For long, seemingly never-ending sagas like this, newspapers really need to devise a way to help readers see the whole picture.

    Google’s Living Stories project tried to address this problem. It’s no longer supported but it inspired ProPublica to generate a similar design that gives readers a timeline and easy access to past posts about the topic they’re interested in.

    Dipity is also cool — I made this timeline compiling most of Scott’s stories.

    It’d be great if newspapers came up with something like Living Stories. Sometimes a story is bigger than a single article. We ought to figure out a way to systematically tell that story in a compelling way.

    Transform a dull spreadsheet into a compelling, interactive map for readers

    Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

    Check out this amazing presentation at Google I/O 2011 about Google Fusion Tables. The whole video is interesting. But for a journalist’s perspective on the importance of making data accessible to readers, at the 34:50 mark Simon Rogers of the Guardian’s Data Blog offers some interesting examples of how journalists can bring “data to life” with Fusion Tables, a free online tool.

    Google Refine: A tool for journalists looking for great stories in data

    Thursday, November 11th, 2010

    Google unveiled a free tool for journalists who are interested in analyzing public data. Google Refine is a “power tool for working with messy data.” It helps import information and clean up data-entry problems that lurk in many government databases.

    It’s open to everyone but it looks like Google created this tool with an eye on computer-assisted reporting. Google’s introductory video touts “Dollars for Docs,” a data-driven story by ProPublica that showed how drug companies paid doctors to promote their products.

    Analyzing databases is a niche skill in newsrooms. Not all reporters are comfortable doing queries in Microsoft Access or sifting through thousands of computerized records, but those skills can really empower reporters who are trying to make sense of a complicated world. Columbia Journalism Review published a great profile of Daniel Gilbert, a reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier who came across a potential blockbuster of a story about unpaid royalties from mineral rights. But the issue was so complex he didn’t know how to unlock it.

    His editor persuaded the newspaper’s publisher to pay for Gilbert to attend a database boot camp at Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Gilbert learned skills that helped him piece together the gas royalties puzzle. The result: “Underfoot, out of reach“, a series of stories that showed how millions of dollars owed to landowners had been tied up in an “an opaque state-run escrow fund, where it has accumulated with scant oversight for nearly 20 years.” Gilbert won the Pulitzer Prize.

    I haven’t played around with Google Refine yet, but I hope it encourages more journalists to take the plunge into computer-assisted reporting. There are some amazing, data-driven stories to be told out there. We just need more people to tell them.

    (h/t: Jennifer Peebles)

    Express-News joins Google Fast Flip

    Thursday, December 17th, 2009

    Google Fast Flip

    Google announced it added more news sources to its Fast Flip experiment, and the San Antonio Express-News is now flippable.

    Fast Flip is part of Google’s re-imagining of how readers find and consume news. Google takes snapshots of a publisher’s stories or blog posts. You can flip through pages like a magazine until something catches your eye, click on the page, and go to the actual Web site that interests you. Google also recently launched Living Stories, where a news article is treated not as the end, but as the beginning of a conversation with readers.

    For some reason, in Fast Flip the Express-News pages aren’t as visually appealing as other publications because Google isn’t capturing the pictures and graphics on our Web site. Fast Flip has also been criticized. Is this Google tossing the media industry a bone to appease publishers who blame Google for their financial woes?

    I think Google makes a strong case that newspaper Web sites are instantly recognizable as newspaper Web sites — they’re often clunky and difficult to navigate. Fast Flip and Living Stories are attempts to try something different.

    Maybe the day will come when a reader visits the home page of a news site and have the option to change the format. Like reading stories chronologically in a blog format? Click that option. Like the Fast Flip style or the Living Stories style? Click on those options. Everyone has a different preference … let them choose the one they like best.

    Living Stories: Google’s new method of packaging news online

    Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

    Paul Bradshaw wrote an interesting review of Living Stories, Google’s vision of how news should be read, shared and discussed online. Partnering with the New York Times and the Washington Post, Google has created an experiment that tries to move beyond the limitations of typical newspaper Web sites.

    New research tool: Searchable Google archives of Life Magazine

    Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

    Life Magazine visits Texas in 1938

    Life Magazine visits Texas in this 1938 issue

    This is a cool tool for history buffs: Google unveiled a vast, searchable archive of Life Magazine for all 1,860 issues from 1936 to 1972.

    Run a search for “San Antonio” and you’ll find all kinds of stories and photos:

  • A 1938 feature story about Thomas Jefferson High School, with photos of its ROTC classes and “manners” courses for female students;
  • Photos of Fiesta in 1950, which the magazine described as a “seven-day civic binge;
  • A story in 1971 about the long-forgotten protests about the construction of U.S. 281.
  • Here’s Google’s original blog post about this new research tool. “This is part of a broader effort across Google to help bring offline content online and allow people to find it with a simple Google web search,” wrote Google’s product manager Brandon Badger. Hat tip to Marilia Martins who tweeted about this today.