Posts Tagged ‘IRE’

New search tips for 2014 from Google research scientist Daniel Russell

Monday, July 14th, 2014

I couldn’t attend the 2014 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Francisco this year. But thankfully, Google researcher Daniel Russell was there. He gave another excellent presentation about search-engine strategies and posted his advice online.

Daniel Russell, research scientist for GoogleAs the Uber Tech Lead at Google, Dan studies how people search the web. He started sharing little-known search techniques three years ago at the IRE conference in Boston. Since then he’s annually offered tips at IRE that can help everyone — not just reporters — find exactly what they’re searching for online.

Here are some of Dan’s new strategies and tools for 2014, and a recap of the most useful tips from his past presentations that I’ve used myself. You can check out posts about his other talks here and here.

Go back in time

One of the coolest new tools offered by Google this year allows you to jump in a time machine in Google Maps’ Street View.

Let’s say you’re walking around downtown San Antonio and you’re curious about the site of a historic building on Commerce Street across from Main Plaza. An inferno destroyed the building a few years ago and now there’s nothing but a vacant lot:

Commerce street without the Wolfson Building in Google Maps

In Google Street View, click on the clock symbol in the corner of the screen to check out how that spot looked over the years. In this case, you can look at what the Wolfson Building looked like before the catastrophic fire:

Google map image of the Wolfson Building in downtown San Antonio

The Wall Street Journal used this time-machine effect to illustrate dramatic growth in Brooklyn.

The cool thing about this is how you can pan around and get different perspectives of the sites you’re interested in.

Gallery of Google Map Mashups

The Google Maps Gallery allows organizations to mesh their data with Google maps. All these mashups are searchable, and Google links to the original sources if you want to download the information yourself.

Let’s say you’re curious about which counties in the United States are prone to tornado strikes. A search of “tornado” in the Google Maps Gallery shows a map based on federal data showing tornado strikes, total property damage, injuries and deaths by county:

Wildcards in Google Maps

Type an asterisk in the search bar of Google Maps and it will show you every business and significant, named place it knows about in the area you’re viewing.

If you plan on using any of this information in a news story, you’ll want to take steps to confirm what you’re seeing in the map. But this is a really quick way to get a sense of what’s in the area.

For example, if you’re writing about the Wolfson Building fire and want to get a quick idea of what businesses were nearby, in Google Maps, focus on the site on Commerce Street and try the wildcard search:

Force Google to search for certain words

By far the most common search function I use in Google is “intext,” which Russell discussed at his first presentation in Boston.

Sometimes Google tries to be too helpful. It changes your search terms and uses words it thinks you’re searching for– not the words you’re actually searching for.

And sometimes the websites in Google’s search results don’t include all your search terms because Google decided those pages might still be relevant.

That might be OK for general searches. But it’s not very helpful if you’re looking for pages with specific terms or words with unusual spellings. How do you make Google search for those exact words?

Typing intext:[keyword] (with no space on either side of the colon) might be Google’s least-known search operations, but it’s one of Dan’s favorites. It forces the search term to be in the body of the website.

If you’re researching the story of the Wolfson Building, for example, you’ll probably want to make sure that Google always includes that unique name in the search results. Typing intext:Wolfson San Antonio will force Google to include the term “Wolfson.”

Intext also works with phrases in quotes. So typing intext:”Wolfson Building” will strong-arm Google into showing you that exact phrase.

To learn more details about Google’s search operators, check out my post about his talk in Boston where he gave us a treasure-trove of advice.

Customized site searches

Google’s site search let’s you search for information on a particular website. Typing site:mysanantonio.com “Wolfson Building” would show pages with that phrase that were published by the San Antonio Express-News. But what if you wanted to regularly check what other local news outlets published in the San Antonio area?

Google can focus on multiple websites with its custom search engine. You tell Google which websites to search, save your settings and Google creates a link to the custom search page. Now you can search those specific websites any time.

This technique is handy for anyone interested in a particular beat or issue. I created this customized search of San Antonio media and blogs to quickly see how news organizations are covering a story. You can also sort the results by time or relevance, and conduct an image search with the terms you want on those websites.

Control F is your friend

Not everyone knows this so it’s worth repeating: Type “Control F” in Windows or “Command F” on a Mac to launch the “find” function in your browser to locate a specific word or phrase on any web page. It’s faster than reading the whole page if you’re looking for something in particular. “If you don’t know this, you’re roughly 12 percent slower in your searches,” Dan said at the IRE conference in Boston.

This year, Dan said useful Chrome extensions expand the usefulness of the “find” function. Let’s say you want to find more than one word. You could type an expression such as Wolfson|Building|Fire to highlight all those words. Handy.

Dan regularly blogs about search strategies by challenging readers with puzzles. It’s a good way to stay in practice. And practice, Dan says, is the best way to hone your search skills.

Live-blogging the IRE 2013 Conference in San Antonio: Resources that will help you be a better journalist

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

IRE Conference 2013

Check out some of my favorite research tips, strategies and resources from this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, where about 1,100 incredibly talented journalists are meeting in San Antonio. These conferences are geared for journalists, but really anyone who’s interested in research tools will find many of these tips handy.
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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.
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Live-blogging the IRE 2012 Conference in Boston: Resources that will help you be a better investigative journalist

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

IRE 2012 Conference in BostonThe classic stereotype about journalists is that we’re all backstabbing vultures who would sell our mothers for a good story.

Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, we only sell our mothers for really, really good stories. But more importantly, we’re actually an amazingly friendly, collaborative bunch.

I’m in Boston where more than 1,000 people are trading tips, offering advice and learning from the best journalists around at this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference.

This is the place to be if you’ve ever wondered, say, how Washington Post reporters figured out the complexities of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. You get to listen to the actual reporters who worked on the story. They’re essentially saying, “Here’s how we did it, and here are some tips we learned to help you work on the same kind of story.” It’s a goldmine for anyone who cares about journalism and wants to do it better.
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Tipsheet: How to bulletproof a story

Friday, February 19th, 2010

I’m working on this tipsheet for a presentation tomorrow at a Watchdog Workshop in Austin organized by Investigative Reporters and Editors. My boss and I are going to talk about some methods we use to fact-check stories. Check out the tipsheet and feel free to e-mail me or leave a comment if you have more ideas about improving accuracy in news stories or blog posts.

Update: For more information about setting up your own notes template that’s mentioned in the tipshseet, here’s a past post with instructions.

How Investigative Reporters and Editors shaped my first investigative story

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

logos headline

Investigative Reporters and Editors is in the middle of a fundraising campaign. If you care about watchdog journalism, you might want to think about helping the cause.

I first heard about IRE from Ken Dilanian, who was an investigative reporter for the San Antonio Express-News in the mid-1990s. I was a skinny dude with a flat top attending Incarnate Word College and writing for the student newspaper, the Logos. Ken suggested I read a book published by IRE called, “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook.”

I bought the handbook during Christmas break and devoured it. The book preached the value of tracking down key records to verify what people tell you, and to learn information that officials don’t want you to know. There’s a wide, wide world of public information out there, if you just know where to look. The book showed you how.

I read the handbook just in time. In the Spring semester at Incarnate Word, I friend told me about problems at the school’s science hall. She said the school was doing a terrible job storing dangerous chemicals — even the San Antonio bomb squad had been called to dispose of potentially explosive substances.

If I hadn’t read IRE’s handbook, I probably would have called the dean, been told nothing was wrong, and walked away clueless about what was really going on.

But thanks to IRE, I thought about which government agencies might have information that could confirm the tip. I tracked down public records, such as police reports, and talked to key officials, such as fire marshals, and confirmed the story. By the time I talked to the dean, I already knew what was going on. It was liberating.

Here’s part of my story in the Logos, published on April 4, 1996:

Sloppy storage practices have plagued the science department for as long as employees remember — and the problem could be deadly.

Last semester Incarnate Word called in chemical disposal specialists from Emtech Environmental Service after old acid was found that could have exploded had it been disturbed.

Bernard Zarazua, laboratory director at the time, was cleaning a lab that hadn’t been used in over six months when he discovered crystallized picric acid in a 25-gram container.

Stable in liquid form, picric acid solidifies over time, turning combustible and sensitive to vibration.

“We had [Emtech] come out and dispose of it,” Zarazua says. “They did it at six in the morning so no one would be alarmed.”

IRE is a nonprofit group that has taught countless students, bloggers and reporters better ways to practice the craft of watchdog journalism. That’s worth a few bucks.