Week 3 of Structured Stories NYC: Getting the hang of it

We've found that explaining Structured Stories isn't easy. But as we begin loading events into the CMS, we're figuring it out.

By Natalie Ritchie – June 22, 2015 | Print this article

There’s a particular anxiety that hits me whenever someone asks me to explain what I’m doing this summer.

I fumble through an answer with phrases like “news database” and “knowledge graphs” and “combinatorial explosion” only to face blank stares and quietly confused nods. In the end, I always wind up telling people to just wait and see, promising it will all be clear(er) once our work began appearing on the site.

We finally reached that point on Wednesday when Ishan, Rachel, and I started publishing our stories online.

As Ishan explained last week, our stories are made up of events—hundreds of them so far. Each requires the creation of an “event frame,” such as “[A Character] passed [A Law]” or “[A Character] published [An Object] about [A Topic].” To then make an event, we simply put information in the brackets and tag each one with a date, location, and primary sources. The final touches are the bullet points and summaries that the reader will see.

The process strips events to their core, leaving no room for color or flowery language. In David’s words, “It’s like old school reporting from the 50’s—just the facts, just ‘who/what/when/where.’”

Interestingly enough, the most challenging part was the creation of seemingly-simple event frames. Our first efforts were markedly “off,” but through lots of trial and error––and David’s infinite patience––we’ve started to get the hang of it.

Making the event frames means wrestling with that fine line between specificity and simplicity. We find ourselves debating whether “presenting a plan” requires a “communication” or “submitting a document” frame. It’s a small distinction, but it is key to the bigger issue: translating language to structure.

As we continue to add frames, events, and stories to the website, the list of “bugs” and “issues” gets longer and longer. But far from being discouraging, this document is in many ways the most valuable output of all in our experiment this summer––”the gold mine,” as David called it.

With every little question or problem we’re coming closer to understanding Structured Stories and what it could become—and closer to having an answer when people ask just what it is we’re doing this summer.