16 August 2010

CONTRIBUTR-an Experiment in Citizen Journalism

It started as a vision for change. Citizen participation in the news business just wasn't happening. Despite a public that is moving more and more of their daily activities online, the journalism industry just hasn't kept up with the needs of the public very well.

Sure there are small citizen journalism initiatives and a few social networks built around news, but nothing exists quite yet that truly makes the process of having a voice in the news process easy and a pleasure to use. That is until I was able to participate in the Adobe/Reynolds Journalism Institute competition.

Public input to the newsroom

We were tasked with solving a problem for the journalism industry using Adobe AIR technology, and I think we did just that. We looked at existing workflows and methods for public interaction and found them, well, lacking. The existing method of sharing content with a news organization basically was either 1) email, 2) a web form, or 3) postal mail. None of those are particularly easy for the public, or for the newsroom.

During the last five months my four-person team of University of Missouri undergraduates created Contributr. It's a newsroom system that makes sharing and processing content from the public easy. We used Flex 3 and Adobe AIR to build a desktop application that not only allows the public to easily read and view news, but also to participate by generating their own content. We also integrated the desktop application with a web server to facilitate newsroom processes.

Adobe AIR facilitates integrated development

AIR was the perfect platform for such an endeavor. The team was already great at solving problems, both in the real and online worlds, though integrating the two was a key challenge. However, Adobe AIR allowed us to design and build a hybrid online/offline application that simplifies and manages the tough technical problems posed by user-generated content.

On the server side Contributr can automatically process multiple file formats and sizes to adjust the user-generated content to the formats and sizes the news organization already uses. All of this just works, simply and reliably, whether the author of the content submits it via mobile phone (with the iPhone application), the web, or the AIR application on his or her desktop.

Flex and AIR give Contributr the flexibility to accept any file format the user submits, and to send it to the server for processing and redistribution to multiple channels. The full Adobe platform allows Contributr to push news content to the desktop, encouraging people to keep their AIR version of the application engaged at all times. Because of the tight desktop/web connection, Contributr can use a local database to store queued submissions of content that citizens may want to send to news organizations. Features like drag and drop, file browsing, and custom UI structures made developing a desktop application just as flexible and easy as building a web application!