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Archives: February 2011

Five ways to visualize your personal data

We talk about data visualization in the journalistic context, but there are uses in our personal lives too. As we continue to document more and more of our personal data online, new tools are at our dispense to make sense of it all. It might seem pointless, but you’d be surprised at what you can learn about yourself, your work habits, and general life routines by seeing your own data in a whole new light. These are a few tools I’ve recently discovered that have helped me cut out a few inefficiencies in my own life through data visualization.

1. Graph my Inbox

Ever wished you could find out a certain statistic about your email usage? If you use Gmail, you’re in luck thanks to the late Bill Zeller, a Ph. D. Candidate at Princeton University. He created a Chrome extension for your Gmail — called Graph Your Inbox — that allows you to search for any keyword, email address or combination of the two to see a visual display of how that query plays out in your inbox. The resulting graphics include a line graph and bar chart, of which you can break down to see emails relative to that particular result.

2. Where Do You Go

Where do you go? An app for visualizing Twitter checkins.

If you use FourSquare to check into locations, you can connect to Where Do You Go to see your checkins on a heat map. You can zoom out to see the checkins based on different cities you’ve visited. The app features different color schemes and has a few sharing options. Another way to visualize your FourSquare checkins is by visiting your foursquare feeds page. Copy the KML link and copy it to your clipboard and paste it into Google Maps.

3. Tweet Stats

This one is an oldie but a goodie that I frequently check to see how my Twitter habits have changed. Tweet Stats allows you to put in your username (no account required), and after a few minutes of processing, see stats about your tweets per month, tweet density by hour, aggregate daily tweets, aggregate hourly tweets, replies, retweets and interface used — all in a colorful, chart-based display.

4. Your personal Google search history

If you have enabled Google web history to be stored in your browser, you can learn tons about yourself by visualizing the types of searches you do at any point in time. For a detailed breakdown, you can filter the searches you’ve conducted by type: web, images, video, news, products, maps, books, or blogs. If you want to see your personal trends over time, you can use the “trends” tool to filter by time period to see your top queries, top sites, top clicks, monthly search activity, daily search activity, and hourly search activity.

5. Your personal finances

If you are comfortable with handing over your banking credentials to financial tool Mint, you can do a lot more than just plan budgets. With Mint’s “trends” tools, you can see charts of how much money you spend in various categories (dining, health and fitness, transportation, etc.). You can also break it down to compare your spending over certain spans of time or how your spending compares to the average spender in a different city or state.

Interactive video: View the world from 360 degrees

Online panoramic photos were already cool when they were just high-resolution, interactive images. Now, the bar has been set even higher with interactive video that allows the viewer to experience a scene from an infinite number of angles. The following are examples of how the immersive technology is being used online:

In what is reminiscent of an explosion-filled Michael Bay movie, visitors to the Dallas Cowboys website can experience the implosion of Texas Stadium from inside the arena as well as control the angle they see it from. Even more impressive is the navigation system below the video that shows you what area of the stadium you are viewing.

Edmonton Journal captured the excitement and action of a massive dodgeball game by placing a camera in the middle of the action. Instead of a single-camera video or a text story describing 2,000 participants hurling 1,000 red dodgeballs at each other you can experience it yourself.

Want to go on a wilderness adventure via helicopter but want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth first? The folks at Nimmo Bay have you covered with their virtual helicopter tour. As you view the video shot from the helicopter, you can use your mouse to see the beautiful vistas from whatever angle you choose.

CNN’s interactive video shot in Haiti was featured in this previous post when panoramic video was just starting to catch on. The video, however remains innovative, compelling, and worth a look.

Since last year’s post, there have been some significant advances in 360° video and the iPhone app BEP360 is a prime example. The app features an interactive component that pairs augmented reality with 360° video to create one of the first interactive, augmented reality music videos.

As you turn your body and your iPhone, the video reveals more of the action around you. The experience is too cool to capture in words so be sure to check it out.

The advantages of interactive video are pretty clear: instead of choosing an angle for the viewer to see, the viewer can experience the scene however they choose. Of course, producing such a video takes resources and equipment, but based on these examples it is worth the effort.

Friday roundup: 10 free and legal multimedia tools, WaPo’s “Trove” project

Yes, another tools list. But this is a really good one.

A great post this week came from Adam Westbrook — a new media journalist, film maker, lecturer and blogger based in London — who blogged about 10 free and legal (i.e., not pirated) multimedia tools for journalists.

He calls out a few awesome tools that I’d never heard of, like MPEG Streamclip, which converts video files to fit your needs, whether that means smaller, bigger, a new file type, etc. Another cool tool is Framecounter, which detects frames per second in your video so you don’t have to do the math, and Wisestamp, an email signature generator.

Check out his full list for the whys and hows on his top 10 list.

Trove: A new experiment from WaPo

An interesting new experiment is coming out of The Washington Post called Trove. Vadim Lavrusik at Mashable reports that the project will launch in March 2011 as a news aggregation service that customizes news based on preferences of the user. These preferences are determined by a quiz-like interface that the user participates in.

Trove pulls from thousands of sources around the web beyond The Washington Post. Lavrusik, who has access to a Trove beta account, isn’t yet convinced that Trove delivers much unique value:

Trove doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of its name: a newfound treasure. It’s far too similar to other aggregation news sites out there, most notably Google News. The utility of Trove isn’t different enough from other aggregators, aside from its user interface and the ability to easily filter content.

If the site is truly about helping users find the signal in the noise, it will use the selected interests to build more focus in the channels created, rather than continuing to add a stream of content based on the user’s interests on the main page.

Read the full story at Mashable.

Trove is currently in private beta. At, you can sign up to get an account after the site is open to the public.

Disclosure: Founder of this blog, Mark Luckie, is a senior news director for the Universal News Desk at The Washington Post.

Tools of the day: and Connect a Sketch

As someone who has worked in product management, I’m always on the prowl for any tools that can make the process of planning a web project easier.  These two tools for quick feedback and quick prototyping do just that.

Need to make a quick comment about the design of something on your website to pass along to the rest of the team? Whether you’re a QA tester, designer, developer, or web producer makes collaborative commenting on websites simple as ever.

Unlinke other desktop screen captruing apps, which require you to download and be running software, is a browser bookmark that you simply click to activate. In the top right-hand side of your browser, you’ll get a markup menu with options for pen sizes, colors, and text. Then you can start scribbling away over the top of any website.

The most useful part of this tool — that sets it apart from services like Jing and Skitch — is that you users can collaboratively mark over each other’s work for contextual commenting. It also saves a cached HTML version of the site you marked up so that when the page changes later, your markup will still be relevant (see this mock example I created). The downside from the desktop-based services, however, is that you can only use on the web and that it doesn’t record audio or screencapture video. But who knows — it’s still in beta.

Connect a Sketch

Putting into practice Matt Waite’s now-infamous “Demos not memos” mantra, comes a tool called Connect a Sketch. If you have a set of hand-drawn sketches or quick wireframes that you want to prototype, Connect a Sketch is the tool for you. Instead of having to convey the functionality of your proposed web-app or site, you can simply plug the pieces into Connect and Sketch. Their site says it best:

Connect-a-Sketch takes your sketches and wireframes and turns them into functional prototypes. Upload your sketches/wireframes, drag and drop them into your prototype, create interactive states and connections between your pages, then test and share.

Created by the team at Viget, the in-browser app is clean with an intuitive drag n’ drop interface. You start by uploading all your sketches, then linking parts of your sketches to each other to mimic interactivity. It’s a quick way to test ideas before having to code a full prototype.

Starting a blog from scratch: One blogger’s tale

How do I make my blog popular?

It’s a question many bloggers who are just starting out ask themselves. To gain some insight on the process, I talked with Charli Penn-Watkins, author of the five-month old blog Man Wife and Dog, a daily account of her new journey into married life, about the successes and pitfalls she has encountered and how she’s working to expand her brand.

MSL: Why did you decide to start blogging?

CPW: I love to write. I love my husband [Gibran]. And I love our marriage. This blog felt like the way to join all three passions. I also personally believe that chronicling something from the beginning is the perfect way to look back and reflect over time. So when I got engaged I vowed to write about my marriage from the very start. Now I’m all about keeping a daily record of my thoughts, experiences, and highs and lows involving my marriage.

MSL: What is your blog about?

CPW: Ultimately, my marriage. I recently married the man of my dream — my soul mate if you will — and after dating for seven years, we’ve got the whole love thing down solid, but it’s the marriage thing we’re working on perfecting — together, of course. So I’ve chosen to chronicle that journey online and to be as transparent as possible as so as to create a dialogue for other women who can somehow see some piece of a reflection of their own life or story within mine.

MSL: How often do you blog?

CPW: Blogging is a much bigger commitment than most people realize, I think, even for a writer. So, in the beginning it took some getting used to so I only blogged two or three times a week. Then I got hooked and now I blog almost daily, and I’ve learned my readers really appreciate that. They say they like coming back every morning to find something new up for discussion.

MSL: What kind of strategies have you used to promote your blog? Do they work?

CPW: I’m finding that promoting my blog is the tricky part because the key is to target the right audience, and that’s not always easy to find. For now I’m all about utilizing social media; something I know and understand well. I created a Facebook fan page for my blog and rebranded my personal Twitter account to match as well.

I also joined a lot of online blog communities that offer support and multiple opportunities for partnerships and link shares. Right now my favorites are BlogFrog which even lets you set up your own blogger communities and share widgets for it on your site and 20 Something Bloggers. I feel that they’re most inclusive of new bloggers who aren’t “famous” or “top listed”.

I’m able to meet lots of other new and amateur bloggers like me who are blogging about similar topics, visit their blogs and then include links back to my site using my custom Gravatar to comment on their sites and within the community forums. I also make a point of fully optimizing my posts and images for search engine terms.

So far I’ve found the most success through promoting my blog on my personal Facebook page and through my Facebook fan page, as well as through search engine referrals for relevant keyword searches. Adding a Facebook “Like” button plug-in to my WordPress blog really helps because a lot of people give when people give my posts a “thumbs up” it pops up in their personal feeds for their network and friends to see.

MSL: What are some of the obstacles you have had to overcome?

CPW: Before I started blogging personally, I spent years as an online editor for large professional brands. This meant I had a lot of experience working with content management systems and writing for the web but there was always a team of developers and tech support to help with all the back end stuff we never had to see or do.

Now that my blog is privately hosted it’s up to me to understand how to edit each individual element without the use of a dashboard or simple CMS. It’s really forced me to teach myself each step of the blogging process and to take my knowledge past basic HTML and to focus on CSS and stuff.

MSL: What obstacles do you still face?

CPW: I’m still lost on a lot of the CSS and the tweaking of all the behind the scenes stuff, but it’s a lot of fun learning as I go. I can spend hours trying to find and install a plug-in I need and make it look the way I want it to. I don’t mind the learning curve, but I am constantly afraid I’ll break my blog and there will be on one in the next cube for me to beg to fix it.

I think what’s probably most frustrating also is knowing what I want to do, but not having the skill/knowledge to do it myself and having to seek out someone to teach me how or do it for me whose services I can actually afford.

MSL: What keeps you motivated?

CPW: Although I’ve only been blogging for a short time, I already get a lot of feedback from readers saying that they appreciate my honesty and that they got something useful or therapeutic from one of my posts. I have a 9 to 5 so that gets me through the late nights I stay up planning posts and tweets and Facebook status updates for the next day.

MSL: How do you define success for your blog?

CPW: In two ways: 1. Whenever I put a post that I’m proud of I feel successful because I’m doing what I set out to do. 2. When someone I don’t know randomly shouts me out on Twitter or leaves a comment saying “I love your blog and I visit every day” that makes me feel like something’s working out.

You can follow Charli and her blog at Man Wife and Dog Blog.