Posts Tagged ‘Journalism’

Review: Go back in time with Cogi to record fleeting moments

Monday, February 9th, 2015

When we watched the State of the Union address with our kids a few weeks ago, 3-year-old Sophie Sue was amazed at how members of Congress were sitting still and listening. They weren’t fidgeting, looking around or running off to play with Legos.

“Wow, they’re doing a good job, right?” said the little Tedesco munchkin.

It was one of those cute family moments when I wished I could go back in time and hit the record button.

So I did.

I tapped the screen of my smartphone and the Cogi Android app captured the last 15 seconds of our conversation. Cogi kept on recording until I tapped the screen again. And I repeated the process through the whole speech, capturing only the highlights of what our kids said.

This is the genius behind Cogi — you only record what you want. And Cogi lets you jump back in time to capture that fleeting moment. Because by the time you realize you want to record something, it’s usually too late.

“I don’t want to record everything,” said Mark Cromack, president and chief technology officer of Santa Barbara-based Cogi Inc. “But by the time I realize I do want to record something, I do need to back up a bit. That’s the cool part.”

The app’s name is about capturing the “cogent idea” and it’s like a DVR for your life. Cogi could help anyone who attends long meetings, school lectures or court hearings. You can also get creative with it. I’ve started to use Cogi during car rides with the kids when they’re being funny. Cromack said bird watchers use it to record bird calls. Lifehacker called it one of the best recording apps for Android.

Mark Cromack

Cromack

I interviewed Cromack last week to ask how the company came up with the clever idea for Cogi, discuss a couple things I see as limitations, and learn what new features are on the horizon. Cromack is an avid Cogi evangelist who said he, his co-founder and his son thought of the idea years ago before anyone knew how useful smartphones would become.

“Imagine a world where you got, let’s say, a lapel pin,” Cromack said. “You could just tap it that moment when something interesting happens. Or better yet, it just magically knew that something was cogent to you.

“Well, that’s an interesting dream. Roll that back to some degree of reality. What could we achieve nowadays?”

Then smartphones became a thing. Today, the Cogi app is available on iTunes and Google Play. Here’s how the app works:

You open Cogi and a button on the screen says “start session.”

Cogi Start Session Screen

Tap on that and start a new session. A session is when Cogi is listening but not actively recording. The button now says “tap to highlight.”

Cogi Tap to Highlight Screen

When you hear something you want to keep, tap the highlight button. Cogi then starts to actively record, and it goes back in time to record the previous audio it was listening to before you hit the button. You have the option to go back five, 15, 30 or 45 seconds in time.

Cogi Capturing Screen

You can repeat this process as often as you like. When you’re done with the session, hold down the button. Cogi lets you add notes, tags and photos to each session. You can upload sessions or audio clips to services such as Evernote.

That’s all free. Cogi makes money by offering a monthly membership service that allows you to record phone calls and receive transcripts of recordings for a fee.

While you could use it to record an entire interview and soak up every word, Cogi really shines when you only want to capture the highlights of long conversations or events.

One problem with Cogi is that it only records in Windows .wav files. The quality is great but the large files hog memory. Cromack said Cogi will soon add options to record in other formats.

“That’s coming out within probably the next public release,” he said. “It has to.” Cromack said the company knows users want that option but it’s one item on a long list of improvements the company is working on.

“We’ve known about it,” he said. “The issue was just one of, ‘Let’s get something out there that works and it’s solid and has that cool experience.’”

Another quibble: When the screen is off or when you’re using other apps, Cogi no longer passively listens during a session. (If you’re actively recording, Cogi will still capture audio.) The screen dims after awhile to save battery life. But if I’m taking notes or something I don’t want to accidentally brush the screen and screw something up. Or maybe I’ll need to use another app during a session.

By the time I realize I do want to record something, I do need to back up a bit. That’s the cool part.”

Cromack sounded receptive to that critique but declined to discuss details about whether it will be addressed in upcoming updates, or whether Cogi will branch out beyond audio into the world of video. He later sent me an email saying the company is developing a version of the app that lets users record sessions even when the screen is off.

“Based on your input and questions, we already have implemented a private version of the app that continues to record/monitor when the screen is off,” he wrote. “Control is passed to the volume keys and feedback to the LEDs (on Android). This not only provides a more subtle way of triggering Cogi, but it dramatically improves power savings achieved as compared to the current dim screen feature. As such, we’ll be delivering this ‘power user feature,’ no pun intended, in a future release (soon). We still have some things to work out with this feature, as this proof of concept version was to just see how it *might* work.”

Cromack said that later this year Cogi will offer cloud services to members. This would enable users to share highlights, notes and photos with others who could view that material in a web browser.

“All of that is part of Cogi cloud services,” Cromack said. “It’s not available today but it’s going to be out.”

If demand increases for Cogi’s transcription services for members, Cromack said the company plans to include other languages and translation services. Cogi is also going to be updated to support enhancements for larger devices, such as tablets and iPads. “There’s a long laundry list of really exciting capabilities,” he said.

For me, Cogi offers a way to capture fleeting moments not only for news stories, but for the times with my kids when they say something funny or insightful. Parents think they’ll remember every moment of their children growing up. Cogi can help make that happen — even for the moments we miss. Just hit that highlight button, upload your session, and make a family journal.

Now you’ll never forget that time your daughter watched the State of the Union address.


Up in Flames: Flares wasting natural gas in the Eagle Ford Shale

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

If you drive through the bustling oil patch of the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio, it won’t take long to find the surreal sight of flares burning natural gas like perpetual bonfires.

Natural gas is cheap. Pipelines are expensive. So instead of collecting the fossil fuel, many oil and gas operators build tall, metallic spires called flare stacks to burn the gas and release it into the Texas sky.

Natural gas flareFor years, no one could say with any certainty how much natural gas was going to waste. Everyone knew flaring in shale country was a problem. But officials at the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state agency that oversees the oil and gas industry, had never released figures showing how much was being burned in the Eagle Ford.

Instead, the agency released only statewide figures showing the overall volume of flaring was low compared to overall production — about one percent.

Whenever a government agency touts rosy statistics, there’s probably a database behind those numbers. And if you obtain that raw data, you might be able to figure out what’s really going on.

Today’s Express-News story about flares burning 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas so far in 2014 is a good reminder of the value of public databases — and why journalists need to get their hands on them to analyze the records for themselves.

There’s no question analyzing data can be a lot of work. We filed an open records request with the Railroad Commission for a copy of the flaring data in the spring of 2013. It’s a huge database of monthly reports showing how much oil and gas is produced in Texas and where those hydrocarbons go. Flaring and venting are one of the “disposition” categories in the data.

I drove to the agency’s Austin headquarters with a flash drive that could handle the enormous database. It was a beast — more than 25 gigabytes of 85 million records. All that summer we used software to convert the Railroad Commission’s archaic data to CSV files, a format we could use in the newsroom. After that, it took weeks to crunch the numbers and uncover the hidden pitfalls.

Why go through the hassle? Why should frazzled journalists take the time to learn how to analyze data? Don’t we have enough to do?

The answers is, journalists need to know a lot of skills — how to interview people, how to write clearly, how to find information. Analyzing public data should be a part of that skill set. It opens doors to stories that couldn’t otherwise be told. This is what journalism is all about.

When we were finished reviewing the flaring data, our analysis showed that the volume of flared gas in Texas had increased by 400 percent since 2009. And most of that gas came from the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio. This chart essentially told the story of flaring in the shale that no one had figured out — not even state officials:

Quantifying the volume of flared gas opened up new questions and possibilities. When Projects Editor David Sheppard asked how much air pollution was created by all this flaring, we found out there was a way to calculate an estimate. We obtained emails from the state’s environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that showed how to estimate levels of air pollution created by gas flares. Those formulas were based on the volume of flared gas – which we had. So we plugged those numbers into Excel spreadsheets to come up with the amounts of sulfur, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that came from flaring in the region.

In August, the Express-News published the results of our investigation, Up in Flames. The total volume of wasted gas in the shale from 2009 to 2012 was almost 39 billion cubic feet — enough to meet the annual heating and cooking needs for all 335,700 residential customers who relied on gas last year in CPS Energy’s service area, which includes San Antonio.

Sunday’s story is based on a fresh batch of flaring figures obtained by Express-News Data Editor Joseph Kokenge, who scraped the data directly from the Railroad Commission’s website.

The new numbers for 2013 and 2014 show that flares burned and wasted even more of the fossil fuel. In the first seven months of 2014, more than 20 billion cubic feet of gas went up in smoke — enough to fuel CPS Energy’s 800 megawatt Rio Nogales power plant during the same time frame.

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:

tornado map

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.

Telling stories about the unthinkable: How three journalists shined a spotlight on child abuse

Sunday, April 20th, 2014
Sarah Brasse

Sarah Brasse

In February 2009, an 8-year-old girl from Schertz died, alone, of acute appendicitis — a disease that could have easily been treated if caught in time.

In the hours leading up to her death, people concerned about the girl — including officers from the Schertz Police Department — had warned the Texas Department of Child Protective Services that she was a victim of neglect.

CPS didn’t act. And on Feb. 5, 2009, authorities found the girl’s body in a soiled bed.

Her name was Sarah Brasse.

It wasn’t so long ago in Texas that you would have had a tough time learning any of those tragic details.

In fact, according to the state officials in charge of protecting children from abusive adults, you would have had no legal right to even know Brasse’s name.

And you certainly wouldn’t be able to know the agency missed opportunities to help Brasse.

But a decade of diligent reporting by three Express-News journalists shined a spotlight of transparency on tragedies involving Brasse and scores of other children in San Antonio, helping the public understand the unfathomable.
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Review of the SteadyTracker UltraLite and tips from company owner Rene Kropf

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

I have kids. Which means I own a video camera. Which means I chase my kids around with my video camera, trying to catch them in action. And the footage always looks shaky and horrible.

So I’ve read more than my fair share of reviews about stabilizers, Glidecams and Steadicams. They rely on gimbals and counterweights to produce smooth, dream-like shots. But they’re often expensive, and some customers complain it takes forever to balance these contraptions.

About 15 years ago, Rene Kropf and his colleagues were experiencing the same frustration as they worked in his garage trying to design a tool that could help stabilize shaky film footage for light cameras.

“We went down the same route of counterweights and all that,” Kropf told me. “And we saw that as a nightmare. It’s like, the sun went down and we still haven’t balanced it, so forget that.”

The SteadyTracker UltraLite doesn't rely on a gimbalKropf, the owner of Cobra Crane, a camera gear company in California, abandoned the gimbal system altogether. Instead, he helped devised something called the SteadyTracker Ultralite, a crowbar-like device with two adjustable weighted ends and a balancing pad in the middle that rests on top of your hand.

I recently bought the SteadyTracker UltraLite for about $179 on Amazon. The SteadyTracker is touted as a simpler, inexpensive option compared to other stabilizers. I’ve been using it for a few weeks and produced some sample shots in this video review. When I called Cobra Crane with a few questions about the SteadyTracker, I was surprised to get a call back from Kropf, the company’s owner. He offered insights and tips that aren’t in the instruction manual.

“It’s relatively inexpensive,” Kropf said. “It’s pretty easy to use. And the biggest thing, the number one thing that people comment on, is it’s a super-quick set up, so you don’t miss shots.”
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Saying goodbye to an ‘Unsung Hero’

Friday, June 28th, 2013

The last time I saw Kelly Guckian, we had taken her out for lunch on her last day at the San Antonio Express-News before she embarked on a new journey at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I snapped this picture of Kelly and our colleagues outside the Express-News building 17 months ago:

Kelly Guckian and the Express-News crew

There she is in the middle with the slightly mischievous smile. See how everyone else is squinting in the bright Texas sun? Kelly’s the one flaunting sunglasses. Clearly the smartest one in the bunch.

A subset of journalists in the news business knows how to obtain government data, analyze it and tell readers something new about the world.

And within that niche, there are experts like Kelly. The ones who really know their stuff. Whenever a data problem stumped me, I’d turn around at my desk and ask, “Hey, Kelly, how do you …” And no matter what I asked, I’ll be damned if Kelly didn’t know the answer every time.

Years ago, after the death of former state Sen. Frank Madla and his family in a tragic house fire, Kelly, Karisa King and I analyzed fire-response time data we obtained from the San Antonio Fire Department. I remember this story very well because it’s a powerful example of how public data can empower journalists to tell readers what’s really going on in their community. Our story said:

City records show the Fire Department’s mission of protecting lives and property is clashing with San Antonio’s appetite for new land.

In the past six years, firefighters rushed to inner-city blazes far more quickly than to fires in popular outlying areas that attract thousands of new homeowners.

Delays on the city’s edges plague rich and poor alike, from the exclusive enclave of the Dominion to low-income neighborhoods like Sunrise, a struggling community on the far East Side.

San Antonio annexed many of these neighborhoods despite protests by residents, who complained the city would fail to provide swift fire protection.

The city’s own records reveal that most of the time, those fears came true.

You can’t write that kind of story without knowing how to analyze public data for yourself. Kelly got that.

Kelly started out in the news business as a photo archivist in 1994. But then she was drawn to the geeky goodness of computer-assisted reporting. This was her calling, and she excelled through intelligence, generosity and hard work. Kelly went to school in her spare time and rose through the ranks to become database editor at the Express-News.

But it was a hard climb. Like I said, computer-assisted reporting is a niche field. Not everyone understands the work that goes into it or sees a need for it. But many of Kelly’s colleagues saw how she was improving the newspaper. When the Express-News created a new “Unsung Hero” category for the Philip True awards in 2004, the newsroom staff overwhelmingly nominated her to be the first recipient.

Kelly loved to learn about this intriguing, challenging field of journalism. She would have kept on learning, and she would have been generous with her knowledge.

But five months ago, Kelly was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a ferocious disease.

Yesterday, Kelly died.

I’ll miss Kelly’s cheerful spirit. Her amazing desire to learn. And her mischievous smile.

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 sexual assault victims in the military are declared mentally ill and booted out

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Karisa KingAmazing reporting by Karisa King, who shows in excruciating detail how sexual assault victims in the military face retaliation and accusations of mental illness. Check out the “Twice Betrayed” home page with links to video interviews and the entire package of stories.

San Antonio Express-News launches paywall

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

San Antonio Express-News building

Photo credit: Sean McGee

Our new paid site was unveiled today. We still have the free site at mysanantonio.com that will offer things like breaking news, entertainment and event calendars. But in-depth stories and other features will now be tucked behind a paywall at Expressnews.com.

I’m not sure how I feel about paywalls on news sites, but I see some upsides. Thanks to the paywall, we don’t have to chase page views, so there’s no link bait or bikini-babe slideshows. There’s no extra cost for print subscribers, which rewards them for buying the newspaper. And the new site looks drop-dead gorgeous. It’s actually a pleasure to read without the distracting flash ads.

This is an interesting strategy. Mysanantonio.com will be free and post potentially viral content, while Expressnews.com will, hopefully, generate revenue from subscribers.

What do you think?

Texas Week examines dangers facing oil-and-gas workers on the Eagle Ford Shale

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

Rick CaseyMany thanks to Rick Casey, Bruce Kates and the folks at KLRN’s Texas Week for inviting me to discuss the dangers facing oil-and-gas workers on the Eagle Ford Shale.

At least 11 workers have suffered horrible but preventable deaths since 2009.