Mobile Applications Journalists (and You) Should Have on Your Phone

Updated: I added several resources as well as text to show device support. I also clarified the introduction a bit.

A great discussion began on Quora asking “What apps should every journalist have on their iPhone?” Both professional journalists and recreational reporters jumped in on the discussion with enough suggestions to cover most bases when you need to capture news and publish it quickly from a mobile device. While not all are as useful to non-professional journalists, having some of the same apps available can serve the you well in the pursuit to be an active media participant.

For this post, I’ve pulled from the best suggestions there and have added some of my own. I’ve also added Android alternatives to iPhone-only apps. I’ll be updating the Resources section with more mobile apps and welcome your suggestions in the comments.

Apps that improve phone calls and SMS
Actual phone calls and SMS (text messages) are already the killer apps of mobile. However, they can be enhanced by some useful applications.

  • Skype offers flexibility as an IM and live-voice client, giving options beyond using just your mobile carrier for communication. (iPhone, Android, Blackberry)
  • bnter_examplebnter – Bnter allows you to tell stories by recreating your SMS conversations and publish them to the web. It’s an interesting way to visualize a text conversation. (Any device with a  web browser)
  • Apple’s own FaceTime video chat client adds the nonverbal communication that comes with face-to-face conversation. (iPhone)
  • Fring is a video call and chat client that works as a good Android alternative to FaceTime (iPhone, Android)
  • GroupMe helps you organize and send SMS messages to groups of people. (iPhone, Android)

Apps that improve consumption

Reeder exampleWhile individual news organizations are creating great applications of their own, RSS and Twitter clients are still a great way to customize your news consumption experience.

  • Reeder is an iPhone RSS app that connects with a user’s Google Reader Account.
  • Google’s own Reader app for Android.
  • NetNewsWire is an RSS reader with a solid version for the iPhone. It also syncs with Google Reader.
  • Twitter lists are an efficient route for consuming news via mobile device. Make or borrow lists of both individual journalists and publications where you get news.

Apps that improve note taking

While many note applications exist, here are a couple good places to start. Much will depend with personal preference over time, but features to look for are organization, tagging, search capability and the ability to sync to the cloud and other devices.

  • Evernote allows the user to take notes, tag them and then sync them across multiple devices as the notes are backed up on the cloud. (iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Palm, Win Mobile)
  • SimpleNote is a popular note-taking application that replaces the iPhone’s standard Notes app. If you’re a Mac user, an open-source application called Notational Velocity adds syncing to Simplenote and the pair are quickly becoming a popular combo. (iPhone/Mac)

Apps for recording

The photo, video and audio capturing bases can be covered with just a few good apps. Here are several to start with.

  • Instagram is a crowd favorite for taking photos and publishing them quickly. (iPhone)
  • Picplz offers some of the same functionality as Instagram, but is available on Android. (iPhone, Android)
  • For audio, both CinchCast and AudioBoo are worth checking out. Each allow for quickly capturing and then publishing audio, integrating with many social sites. (Both on iPhone and Android)
  • Soundcloud commentFor live streaming video, Bambuser, JustinTV, Qik and Ustream are all good options. (All support both iPhone and Android)
  • Soundcloud allows other users to comment on the timeline of published audio files. This is a great feature for discussing long files of breaking news that haven’t yet been edited as users can quickly see the places creating the most discussion and jump right to that point. (iPhone, Android)

Apps for publishing
Many of the recording apps have their own publishing features built-in. However, the apps listed below help you interact with other publishing tools through your mobile device.

  • For blogging, WordPress, Posterous and Tumblr all have mobile applications that allow you to publish to your blog from your phone. (All on iPhone and Android)
  • Disqus offers an application that allows you to curate and respond to comments on your blog as well as comment elsewhere. It integrates with WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger and other publishing platforms. (iPhone, Android)

Apps that do other useful things

  • Dropbox is a file-storage application that simplifies sharing files across devices and sharing them with others. As it syncs to the cloud, it also serves as a backup application and offers a lot of use to those recording in volatile situations where there’s a risk of a phone being confiscated. (iPhone, Android)
  • Glympse screenPhotoshop Express is a nice tool for editing photos and images on your mobile phone. (iPhone, Android)
  • 5-0 Radio is a police scanner application that can be useful for keeping up with local crime and safety on the iPhone. Scanner Radio is a well-rated Android alternative.
  • Glympse allows you to publish your location in real time. It varies from other location check-in apps in that it allows you to specify times at a location and map a path of travel. It has interesting implications for covering a story that changes locations over time.

Many, many more apps are out there with promising journalistic applications. Jump in on the comments and tell us what you’ve found to help you consume and create media.

The Field Journalist USB Drive: Version 1

USB Drive via DavidRGilsonWhen in the field, you can be limited by computers you don’t control. Limitations can be as simple as a library computer without Adobe Reader installed or as complex as a third-world internet cafe where the machines have few applications and none in your language. A USB drive pre-loaded with your own software is a simple workaround, but I haven’t yet run across a collection of portable software packaged especially for the field journalist.

To meet this need, I’ve gathered a range of portable applications one can run from a USB drive. This is version 1 and will develop based on use and suggestions. I chose the initial set with this criteria in mind:

  • Meet the needs of media consumption or creation
  • Open-source or freeware
  • Familiarity and ease (when possible)

The how-to for setting up your own USB drive is below, but first, let me list the applications:

PortableApps Screen PortableApps Platform – offers an extremely useful foundation for portable software. It sets up your USB drive (or even an iPod) for installing and running other portable applications. It runs on Windows, but can be run on Linux and OSX via Wine. I started with the platform alone without other applications added. However, you can download the platform with lots of extras as well.
Firefox – Other browsers can be portable as well, but I chose Firefox for its universality.
Universal Viewer – This very handy app can view most document and image types and easily covers the doc, pdf and odt bases.
VLC Media Player – VLC plays both audio files and most video formats.
Audacity – This covers simple audio editing.
GIMP – This image editor is an open-source alternative to Photoshop.
Inkscape – This vector image editor is a simple alternative to Illustrator.
KompoZer – Though not as robust as Dreamweaver, this web editor covers a lot of bases.
Notepad++ – This is a text editor that can also highlight code. It’s useful for quick edits to HTML and CSS files.
FileZilla – This is an open-source FTP client.
VirtualDub – I’m still sifting through portable video-editing options, but this one should suffice for now. Codec installations in general make adding a portable video editor a bit more involved.
Skype – Other IM clients are available as well. Skype offers voice and is well-saturated.
Eraser – A simple privacy utility for ensuring documents erased on a public machine are gone for good.

How to Set Up Your Field Journalist USB Drive:

  1. You’ll need a USB drive. It doesn’t have to be extremely roomy for applications as the total install of the programs listed here only comes to 258 MB (give or take). However, you’ll want to have room for any files you’ll be working with, so extra gigs doesn’t hurt.
  2. Download the PortableApps platform. Once downloaded, run the  file. It will ask for an install location. Here, choose the drive letter of your USB drive.
  3. Once installed, PortableApps should launch. If not, view the files on your USB drive and double-click “StartPortableApps.”
  4. Installing applications is fairly simple, though not immediately intuitive. You first need to download the application you want to install and the files can be found at the links in the list above. There are two ways to install depending on whether the application is customized for the PortableApps platform or not. Both are simple:

    To install an app customized for the Portable apps platform
    , go to “Options” and then to “Install a  New App.” Then, just select the file. Note: Files for the Portable Apps platform will carry the .PAF extension.

    To install any other portable app
    , first download and uncompress the file. This will usually yield a file folder with that application’s name. Take this folder and copy it into the PortableApps folder on your USB drive. After this, go back to the PortableApps program, select “Options” and “Refresh App Icons.” Your new application should now appear.
  5. Your USB drive is now ready for digesting, managing and editing a range of media. If you want to customize, more portable applications can be found at PortableApps and Softpedia.

This is just the first version and I’m still exploring portable applications. I’m very interested in suggestions for applications you prefer to those on this initial list or programs that fill other gaps. If you know of similar projects for journalistic purposes, I’m very interested in that as well.

Photo via DavidRGilson’s Flickr stream.

Quickly Create Maps from Your Flickr Collection

iMapFlickr logoiMapFlickr offers a fast approach to mapmaking if you geocode your Flickr images. Just enter a Flickr ID, user URL or even the e-mail address you use for Flickr and iMapFlickr will generate a Google map tagged with photo locations. The tool allows you to choose from your photo sets and offers some convenient customization options for the embedding the map elsewhere. Map dimensions, picture sizes and tag icons can all be adjusted.

iMapFlickr mapiMapFlickr doesn’t show support for Flickr groups yet, but there is already potential here for journalistic collaborations. As long as photos are public, one can create maps from another user’s collection. So, one collaborator could upload pictures to her Flickr account and others could customize and embed the maps from that account without directly accessing it.

Take note that geotags have their own privacy levels on Flickr and the location data must be shared publicly for iMapFlickr to work. Check out this video if you’re unsure how to geotag Flickr photos. Also, maps may be tricky on WordPress due to iframes. Fixes are explained here.

The example shot is made from sockeyed‘s set of the Vancouver Bicycle Music Festival. and the Mobile Media Toolkit

MobileActive is a go to place for info on cell phone usage and tools. In 2009, MobileActive received a Knight News Challenge grant to build the Mobile Media Toolkit, a database of tools and how-to guides for those using mobile phones for social change.

MobileActive Mobile DataPart of this toolkit is a directory of mobile phone statistics that functions as something like a CIA factbook for mobile. Selecting a country, one can see mobile costs, saturation amongst the population and regional providers. For example, I can see that around 41% of Chinese citizens use mobile phones and they pay about 1 US cent on average for an SMS (as of 2007-2008). This is helpful data as one decides how to develop applications for different regions of the world.

As well, MobileActive offers a database of mobile phone applications, case studies and how-to guides. These range in purpose from citizen media to advocacy and are extremely fresh with most additions occurring in 2009-2010.

Finally, MobileActive’s sense of purpose emerges in its news about global uses of mobile. Recent articles tell stories about a 20-village news network in rural India and anonymous cell phone videos from Iran. Katrin Verclas, MobileActive’s co-founder, expresses the heart behind the project in this video:

Make What You’re Reading More Readable

Readability is a worthwhile browser application if you want to focus you’re attention on a site’s text and winnow out the advertising and widget chaff. It’s pretty straightforward. Add the bookmarklet here to your browser’s bookmarks and click it when you want signal without the noise. The application will pull the text from the page and display it in a typographically-friendly format. Here’s an example of the most recent Mediactive post:

Mediactive through Readability

I’m interested to hear who finds this helpful and who doesn’t. So, send feedback. My only qualm at this point is long form articles without imagery can cause me to start to glaze over a bit. I think the Internet has ruined me for traditional books and lengthy text without immediate distraction nearby.

Digital Media Lessons from the Game Developers Conference

Last week I attended the Game Developers Conference and kept my eyes open for topics related to media literacy. Thoughts on media consumption and creation show up in the multitude of lectures, panels, bootcamps and roundtables dedicated to the study and creation of games. Here are some things I gleaned:

Serious Games Summit
Redistricting GameSeveral interesting things came up at the Serious Games Summit, which is the session track for examining games used for purposes other than entertainment (not that entertainment isn’t a worthy goal itself). Here are the highlights:

  • Soren Johnson contrasted game theme with mechanic in a talk titled “Theme is not meaning.” This is an important breakdown when it comes to games literacy as game mechanics tend to deliver the real meaning in a game. Johnson’s thesis was that a game’s window dressing was just that unless the mechanic matched. The Redistricting Game was offered of a solid example of matching theme with mechanic as the player is tasked with literally drawing new voting district lines to win needed votes. The discussion goes much deeper and Chris Dahlen writes more about the talk here.
  • Borut Pfeifer has been working on a game about crowds in the Iranian Election. Named The Unconcerned, the game pulls the player through the streets of the Iranian election by putting her in the shoes of parents looking for their daughter. Pfeifer’s talk covered prototyping and the many iterations along the way to figuring out what played well. The biggest takeaway here concerns creation. Traditionally, creating media involved getting one’s ducks in a neat row before creation began. However, games and other digital media find success in testing and getting feedback on many rough drafts along the way. I’m going to hunt down some links for the best practices for iterative design for the Mediactive Tools section.
  • While the talk strayed more into digital entrepreneurship, Jelena Godjevac presented a case study of Blossom, a game that places the player in the role of a small business owner. Blossom came out of Micro Enterprise Acceleration Institute (MEA-I) as a game-based way of furthering local micro-business. They’re looking for new ideas for games that teach entrepreneurship and are teaming up with HP in a design contest. I’d love to see submissions related to digital media entrepreneurs, like starting a local news site or training citizen journalists.

Game Writers’ Roundtable
Several worthwhile tips came out of a roundtable of both professional and amateur game writers. Here are the ones that apply well to digital media creation.

  • Show don’t tell – In an interactive environment, show a story before using words. Figure out what you can say with other forms of media. This applies to even something like blogs. Can you set your stage with a good photo or video? Does a link or a podcast say it better than you can?
  • If you can’t tweet it, you shouldn’t write it – This came up in the context of dialogue and text in midst of play. The same could be applied to captions, explanations of mashups and even one’s YouTube video descriptions. There are excellent uses for long form, but if your creation is multimedia, don’t burden it with text. Err on the side of brevity.

Social games were a hot topic at the GDC this year, both for the massive jump in people playing these games and for their lucrative nature. I sat in on a session with Mark Skaggs of Farmville where he explained the game’s development process. Farmville itself has been a bit of a phenomenon and a rather controversial one.

Most interesting for Mediactive’s purposes are the rapid creation and development of Farmville. According to Skaggs, the initial team was composed of less than ten people and was developed in five weeks. From the point of release, the game acquired about 1,000,000 new users per week, an above-expectations rate. This critical mass gave the team lots of data, which informed the design going forward. Skaggs explained “fun” as something hard to measure, while behavior could be tracked by clicks. When strawberries received a large number of clicks, the team created “Super Berries” and the resulting popularity nearly crashed the server. This is just one example, but every game action and click was evaluated for new direction in content.

I see a couple lessons here that apply to digital media:

  1. Release quickly and design based on data and user feedback.
  2. Data-driven design requires greater discussion when it comes to news. Lots of clicks can tell you if a story is popular, but a click can’t tell you if the reader was informed. As well, a click may tell a creator if people enjoy content, but not the impact of that content. For example, a reader may spend more clicks in a day on what celebrities are wearing, but one click given to a long form political story may have the greatest impact on a future vote.

Beyond what I’ve covered here. I ran into some interesting tools for media creation, which I’ll be testing and posting to the Tools page. Games and interactive environments are ripe for experimentation when it comes to new media and I’m excited to see what emerges over time.

Games and Democratized Media: Suggestions Wanted

I’ll be at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) this week and I’d like your suggestions on what to cover. Games and interactivity are a large part of contemporary media and the ability to both engage with and create within this rapidly-evolving medium become more important.

You can see the conference’s schedule here. Hot topics this year are social games, geolocation, smartphone applications and augmented reality. As well, something like the Serious Games summit examines the use of games for not purely entertainment reasons. So, if the GDC interests you, add suggestions for sessions or topics you’d like me to cover to the comments section.

Add Proofreading Support to Your WordPress Dashboard

After the Deadline is a WordPress plugin that adds proofreading functionality to the WordPress dashboard. Once added, the plugin will highlight grammar, style and spelling errors while you write posts. Similar to Word, errors are color coded by type and right-clicking will bring up suggestions for correction. It’s not 100% (it didn’t catch a there/their misuse I tested), but like any proofreading support, it should be a safeguard instead of a brain replacement. The plugin is only available for self-hosted WordPress blogs. The following video shows After the Deadline in action:

Note: After the Deadline is also available as a FireFox add-on.

Teach News Literacy with NewsTrust

NewsTrust gives its community tools to evaluate news stories. Users can add news articles they find, rating them by journalistic standards such as fairness, sourcing and depth. This format readily lends itself to teaching news literacy and evaluation. Recognizing this, NewsTrust offers a nice set of teacher guides.

The guides, aimed at high school and college-level students, are broken down between news and opinion. The teacher guide is broken down into a 45-minute lesson plan, while the student guide offers an example story and questions that zero in on qualities like facts and fairness. Additional activities are offered as well.

If you like the guides and want to go more in depth, NewsTrust offers an additional page of external educational resources geared toward news literacy.

Audio Editing on a Budget or Away from Home

You never know when you’ll need to chop audio or upload it on the fly. For example, a laptop theft last month had me jumping from loaner machines to public PCs until I secured a suitable replacement. Web-based and low-profile apps prove their worth in such situations and I want to list a few of my favorite finds here.

Audacity is the old steady when you don’t have GarageBand and you need a free audio editor. It has the backing of an enthusiastic open-source community, which keeps it regularly updated. It’s also popular with the public radio crowd as its simplicity is great for editing interviews (as opposed to remixing music). However, you must download and install it as well as download the LAME codec for the ability to export to mp3 format. This is a simple process, but a significant barrier if your current machine doesn’t offer you install privileges.

That’s where Myna comes in. Part of the Aviary suite, Myna is a fully web-based audio editing tool. The features are robust and include nice editing touches like fades, control points and effects. Aviary as whole offers a community for sharing creations publicly and connecting with friends on the site. This video gives an excellent overview:

Indaba Music also offers an online audio editor, but the site’s strength is its fixation on community. The vision is to enable musicians to collaborate on music from afar. In this Colbert interview, Indaba’s co-founder shares an example of producing music with a friend and then bringing in vocals from a singer in Nigeria. The same scenario could easily be applied to journalism.

Indaba allows the user to create a Session and invite other users. Session members can then upload audio tracks to that session (adding audio via phone call is another interesting feature). When the user opens the web-based audio editor, all the tracks from that session are automatically added to the track list. Session members then see file and editing updates on their dashboard or they can subscribe to session updates via RSS. This has a lot of potential for journalists working remotely on a radio or podcasting project. Of note, is the 100mb limit for free accounts. This may not go far when dealing with long interviews. An upgrade to a 500mb account is $50/year, while unlimited storage is $250/year. Another note, the editor is java-based and in Chrome and on Mac, one must open the session file manually in Java.

Finally, I want to offer mp3cut as the ultra-simple tool for crude audio chopping in a hurry. It’s advertised as a platform for cutting clips from songs for ringtones, but could easily be used to reduce the file size of large interview when one only has one clip to worry about and only wants a small part of that clip.

If you have other free and easily-accessed audio tools, please share them in the comments.