Some thoughts on working out who to trust online

The deplorable attempts to use social media (and much of the mainstream media’s response) to find the bombers of the Boston marathon and then the tweets coming out of the Social Media Summit in New York got me thinking again about how we might get a better understanding of who and what to trust online.

Trust by Christian Scheja. some Rights Reserved.

Trust by Christian Scheja. Some Rights Reserved.

When it comes to online trust I think there are two related questions we should be asking ourselves as technologists:

  1. can we help people better evaluate the accuracy, trustworthiness or validity of a given news story, tweet, blogpost or other publication?;
  2. and can we use social media to better filter those publications to find the most trustworthy sources or article?

This second point is also relevant in scientific publishing (a thing I’m trying to help out with these days) where there is keen interest in ‘altmetrics‘ as a mechanism to help readers discover and filter research articles.

In academic publishing the need for altmetrics has been driven in part by the rise in the number of articles published which in turn is being fuelled by the uptake of Open Access publishing. However, I would like to think that we could apply similar lessons to mainstream media output.

MEDLINE literature growth chart

Historically a publisher’s brand has, at least in theory, helped its readers to judge the value and trustworthiness of an article. If I see an article published in Nature, the New York Times or broadcast by the BBC the chances are I’m more likely to trust it than an article published in say the Daily Mail.

Academic publishing has even gone so far as to codify this in a journal’s Impact Factor (IF) an idea that Larry Page later used as the basis for his PageRank algorithm.

The premiss behind the Impact Factor is that you can identify the best journals and therefore the best content by measuring the frequency with which the average article in that journal has been cited in a particular year or period.

Simplistically then, a journal can improve their Impact Factor by ensuring they only publish the best research. ‘Good Journals’ can then act as a trusted guides to their readership – pre filtering the world’s research output to bring their readers only the best.

Obviously this can go wrong. Good research is published outside of high impact factor journals, journals can publish poor research; and mainstream media is so rife with examples of published piffle that the likes of Ben Goldacre can make a career out of exposing it.

As is often noted the web has enabled all of us to be publishers. It scarcely needs saying that it is now trivially easy for anyone to broadcast their thoughts or post a video or photograph to the Web.

This means that social media is now able to ‘break’ a story before the mainstream media. However, it also presents a problem: how do you know if it’s true? Without brands (or IF) to help guide you how do you judge if a photo, tweet or blogpost should be trusted?

There are plenty of services out there that aggregating tweets, comments, likes +1s etc. to help you find the most talked about story. Indeed most social media services themselves let you find ‘what’s hot’/ most talked about. All these services seem however to assume that there is wisdom in crowds – that the more talked about something is the more trustworthy it is. But as Oliver Reichenstein pointed out:

There is one thing crowds have a flair for, and it is not wisdom, it’s rage.”

Relying on point data (most tweeted, commented etc.) to help filter content or evaluate its trustworthiness whether that be social media or mainstream media seems to me to be foolish.

It seems to me that a better solution would be to build a ‘trust graph’ which in turn could be used to assign a score to each person for a given topic based on their network of friends and followers. It could work something like this…

If a person is followed by a significant number of people who have published peer reviewed papers on a given topic, or if they have publish in that field, then we should trust what that person says about that topic more than the average person.

Equally if a person has posted a large number of photos, tweets etc. over a long period of time from a given city and they are followed by other people from that city (as defined by someone who has a number of posts, over a period of time from that city) then we might conclude that their photographs are going to be from that city if they say they are.

Or if a person is retweeted by someone that for other reasons you trust (e.g. because you know them) then that might give you more confidence their comments and posts are truthful and accurate.

PageRank is Google's link analysis algorithm, that assigns a numerical weighting to each element of a hyperlinked set of documents, with the purpose of "measuring" its relative importance within the set.

Whatever the specifics the point I’m trying to make is that rather than relying on a single number or count we should try to build a directed graph where each person can be assigned a trust or knowledge score based on the strength of their network in that subject area. This is somewhat analogous to Google’s PageRank algorithm.

Before Google, search engines effectively counted the frequency of a given word on a Webpage to assign it a relevancy score – much as we do today when we count the number of comments, tweets etc. to help filter content.

What Larry Page realised was that by assigning a score based on the number and weight of inbound links for a given keyword he and Sergey Brin where able to design and build a much better search engine – one that relies not just on what the publisher tells us, nor simply on the number of links but on the quality of those links. A link from a trusted source is worth more than a link from an average webpage.

Building a trust graph along similar lines – where we evaluate not just the frequency of (re)tweets, comments, likes and blogposts but also consider who those people are, who’s in their network and what their network of followers think of them – could help us filter and evaluate content whether it be social or mainstream media and minimise the damage of those who don’t tweet responsibly.

Publishing to the iPad

NPG recently launched a new iPad app Nature Journals – an app that allows us to distribute journal content to iPad users. I thought it might be interesting to highlight a few of the design decisions we took and discuss why we took them.

"Magazines to Read" by Long Nguyen. Some rights reserved.

“Magazines to Read” by Long Nguyen. Some rights reserved.

Most publishers when they make an iPad magazine tend to design a skeuomorphic digital facsimile of their printed magazine – they build in lots of interactive features but build it using similar production processes as for print and make it feel like a print magazine. They layout each page (actually they need to layout each page twice one for landscape and one for portrait view) and then produce a big file to be distributed via Apple’s app store.

This approach feels very wrong to me. For starters it doesn’t scale well – every issue needs a bunch of people to layout and produce it; from an end users point of view they get a very big file and I’ve seen nothing to convince me most people want all the extra stuff; and from an engineering point of view the lack of separation of concerns worries me. I just think most iPad Magazines are doing it wrong.

Now to be clear I’m not for a moment suggesting that what we’ve built is perfect – I know its not – but I think, I hope we’re on the right track.

So what did we do?

Our overarching focus was to create a clean, uncluttered user experience. We didn’t want to replicate print nor replicate the Website instead we wanted to take a path that focused on the content at the expense of ‘features’ while giving the reader the essence of the printed journals.

This meant we wanted decent typography, enough branding to connect the user to the journal but no more and the features we did build had to be justified in terms of benefits to a scientist’s understanding of the article. And even then we pushed most of the functionality away from the forefront of the interface so that the reader hopefully isn’t too aware of the app. The best app after all is no app.

In my experience most publishers tend to go the other way (although there are notable exceptions) – most iPad Magazines have a lot of app and a lot of bells and whistles, so many features in fact that many magazines need an instruction manual to help you navigate them! That can’t be right.

As Craig Mod put it – many publishers build a Homer.

TheHomer

When Homer Simpson was asked to design his ideal car, he made The Homer. Given free reign, Homer’s process was additive. He added three horns and a special sound-proof bubble for the children. He layered more atop everything cars had been. More horns, more cup holders.

We didn’t want to build a Homer! We tried to only include features where they really benefit the reader or their community. For example, we built a figure viewer which lets the reader see the figures within the article at any point and tap through to higher resolution images because that’s useful.

You can also bookmark or share an article, download the PDF but these are only there if you need them. The normal reading behaviour assumes you don’t need this stuff and so they are hidden away (until you tap the screen to pull then into focus).

Back to the content…

It’s hard to build good automated pagination unless the content is very simple and homogenous. Beautiful, fast pagination for most content is simply too hard unless you build each page by hand. Nasty, poorly designed and implemented pagination doesn’t help anyone. We therefore decided to go with scrolling within an article and pagination between articles.

Under the hood we wanted to build a system that would scale, could be automated and ensured separation of concerns.

On the server we therefore render EPUB files from the raw XML documents in MarkLogic and bundle those files along with all the images and other assets into a zip file and serve them to the iPad app.

From the readers point of view this means they can download whole issues for offline reading  and the total package is quite small – an issue of Nature is c. 30MB, the Review Journals can be as small as 5MB by way of comparison Wired is c. 250MB.

From our point of view the entire production is automated – we don’t need to have people laying out every page or issue. This also means that as we improve the layout so we can rollout those improvements to all the articles – both new content and the archive (although users would need to re download the content).

A son’s eulogy

1927 was the year that Ford stopped production of the Model T, the year that for all practical purposes Television was invented, the year that the Spirit of St. Louis crossed the Atlantic to become the first nonstop transatlantic flight and the year that the League of Nations signed a treaty abolishing slavery.
20120125-182953.jpg
1927 was also the year my Daddy was born. Born into a world that was a radically different to the one we live in today.

He was born in Belfast into a devote Presbyterian family and grew up during the Second World War. From Belfast he moved to Dublin to train as a Vet at Trinity.

Moving to a catholic country presented dad with new opportunities – for starters – he was able to supplement his student income by smuggling condoms across the border and selling them to his fellow students.

Although we might all admire this entrepreneurial spirit I should point out that this additional income wasn’t always put to good use.

For when he and his friend, Billy MacArthur, found a bat’s roost they scooped up a bagful of unfortunate bats and headed off to the local cinema, who happened to be showing a zombie movie. I like to think that when he and Billy released the bats they invented the first 3D cinema experience.

Mum and Dad with their pet spider monkey

After Trinity he left Ireland for Cornwall, where he met mum. The two of them then moved to Bedford where he setup his own practice and started a family.

After 40 years they returned to Cornwall.

Retirement can be a risky business – but my parents where lucky. They found friends who made them laugh, who also enjoyed a bottle of red wine or few, who made their retirement a full and happy time.

But on the 24th of January, my daddy died of cancer.

My father, as anyone who met him will know, was a cantankerous, stubborn bugger. He would argue with anyone about any subject. I sometimes wondered why.

I’m sure he did it because he loved the challenge, loved the debate, loved challenging why people thought what they thought, and because he was endlessly curious about the world.

Born into a world that was soon to disappear, washed away by the flood of the modern world. It would have been easy for him to have retreated into what he knew.

But his determination and curiosity drove him forward. Stopped him from retreating into the past.

Instead he did what he loved and explored the world – he caught animals in East Africa, worked and travelled in Asia, read anything and everything, built his practice and then in recent years started to explore the world via the Web.

But more than his willingness to embrace the new was his desire to challenge the status quo and the beliefs that others held.

He knew that whoever you are you’re just a mammal. That it was ok to question what you and others believed and did. He taught me that not only was it ok to question but also not to be scared of the consequences. He taught me to question others and do what I thought was right. He taught me quiet determination.

This Christmas, my brother, Sean and I ended up discussing life and death over a bottle of whisky. And at some point Sean asked me what I wanted out of life.

I told him I wanted to die happy having made interesting things I could be proud of. I think Dad managed that.

What I learned from my daddy’s death was that character is essential: What he was, was how he died.

In the final days of his life he was very tired but when he woke he woke with a smile. He was happy even though he knew he was dying. He was happy because he was happy with his life, he loved being a vet, he loved living in Cornwall, he was proud of us: his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and, he was proud of what he made of his life but most of all he loved his wife, my mummy.

Don’t mourn his death; he wouldn’t want that.

Remember him for the last time he teased you, the last time you fell for one of his practical jokes, the last time you winced at one of his emails or perhaps just the last time he made you look at the world in a different way.

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