5 reasons why Document Cloud rocks

In the wake of the whole WikiLeaks uproar, this seems like a good time to talk about how we provide public documents to the public.

The folks behind DocumentCloud.org have been thinking about this for a while. You can read all about how the organization came to be here.

The biggest problem with the way most news outlets offer public documents is that they do so with no help to the reader. They get a big, fat PDF full of scanned documents, embed a link in the story telling readers they can see the documents for themselves, and that’s it. Here, dear reader, sift through these thousand or so pages and then tell me how awesome my report and analysis of these documents are, because we believe in transparency. Oh, and while you’re at it, I hid a needle in that haystack over there — see if you can find it.

With Document Cloud, you can easily provide your reader with a useful road map to the important information. Here are the top 5 reasons why Document Cloud is awesome.

1. Nothing to download — Everything shows up in a web browser. No worries about whether or not the file is safe to download, whether you have the latest version of Acrobat reader to view the content or trying to figure out where exactly your downloaded document is on your hard drive. Most importantly, keeping the doc in the browser means your readers can still access your navigation.

Here’s a shot of how it looks on the Missourian’s website:

Now isn't this much nicer than viewing in Acrobat? Especially if you want to keep your news organization's logo in readers' view.

2. Follow the yellow-tabbed road map — See those little yellow tabs in the image above? That’s the actual annotation. Let’s check it out in a different view:

The yellow tabs have the look and feel of Acrobat's comment system.

Readers can simply click on the yellow tabs to find out more information from the reporter. In the above case, you can learn all about the criminal history of the plaintiff in this particular lawsuit. And if readers click the annotation button, they can skip through the non-annotated parts of the document and just get to the stuff the reporter believes is important.

This view just shows readers what has been annotated.

So, it offers the best of both worlds. For readers on the go, you skip right to the annotation. For readers who have the time, you can still view the entire document (and serve that Fifth Estate role keeping the media honest, just in case the reporter forgot to highlight something or inserted an error in the annotation) in the browser. Document Cloud also gives the reader the option of downloading the original document without annotation.

3. Private notes (aka blue notes) — When you’re talking about big projects with lots of public documents, chances are you’ll have more than one journalist reading and analyzing documents at any one time. The private notes feature lets journalists leave notes for each other, like in this example (redacted email addresses are my own doing since they’re not germane to this blog post):

Use the blue notes to communicate with other journalists who you are teaming with on the project

Blue notes work just like yellow notes — except only the journalists can see them, not the public. Again, very handy for team assignments.

4. Ability to pull text — Say you want to copy a snippet of text to include as a quote in the story or as a pullout. Instead of opening Acrobat to get this done, simply go to the text tab.

Document Cloud will automatically pull all of the text from the document into a text-only window, which makes it very easy to copy and paste snippets of information

Just to see how well this worked, I tried putting a PDF of a print page created in InDesign into Document Cloud. All of the text from the page was there, though it wasn’t arranged in the most coherent fashion (i.e. breakout boxes were mixed in with the text of stories, and line breaks were arbitrary). So, if you’re looking to pull text from the PDF of a page proof, there are probably much better ways to go. And besides, Document Cloud wasn’t really built for this anyway.

5. Customer support — When we first got on board with Document Cloud at the Missourian, I was stumped as to how we’d be able to integrate it into our website. I’m no technical genius (and I’m definitely not a programmer), so I dropped an e-mail to Amanda at Document Cloud. She got back to me in less than 24 hours and has continued to follow-up with me and our on-site programmer ever since. Document Cloud also keeps a pretty robust blog that documents changes and bug fixes.

Lastly, one other great thing about Document Cloud: You can make the documents public right away, then add the annotations later without having to re-upload anything or update any embedded code. It’s not only great for transparency and enterprise reporting, but immediacy as well. Gotta love that.

Need to convert a video? Here are two easy solutions

We run into this problem at the Missourian all the time — a reporter, usually doing their first-ever video report, decides to save their movie as an .mp4, .wmv or .mpeg. The only problem is, the Missourian’s website only supports .mov files. (I could spend an entire blog post complaining about why I hate the .mov format, but that’s not the point here …)

Here are two pretty good options for converting a video file from one format to the other.

The first is Media Converter, a webware site that is so ridiculously easy and fast it’s almost too good to be true. Best of all, it’s free (or you can pay for a premium upgrade, the free version is pretty sweet).

It works like this. Upload the video you want to convert. Convert it to the format you want. Download it back to your desktop.

It’s that simple. No registration required. No menus with loads of confusing options for the video novice. You can convert up to five videos a day before you have to shell out for the premium site (prices start at $4 per week; the weekly rate goes down the longer you sign up).

There are advantages to premium membership, like the ability to convert bigger documents (up to 1GB in size vs. 100 MB for free) and up to 5 GB of online storage. So, if you have tons of videos to convert and they’re all huge, shell out the $4. Otherwise, enjoy the free.

Another option is Prism, from NCH Software. This little bit of freeware goodness is every bit as easy Media Converter, but it offers a few more bells and whistles, like the ability to resize videos. Oh, and if you’re without an Internet connection while playing with your videos, it’s handy to have the software on your hard drive rather than online.

Prism is available for both Mac and PC.

Need a good notes tool? Give Evernote a try

Raise your hand if you’re a Mac user and you’re so totally over using Stickies.

Talk about a pain — handy for storing snippets of information, completely lame for desktop functionality. I need virtual pieces of paper in my face all the time about as much as I need the real thing junking up my screen.

My solution for a long time was Xpad, which was essentially TextEdit with an organizing system. But it was free, easy to install and didn’t hog any memory to speak of. But it wasn’t all that easy for searching, and eventually it just broke — it stopped saving files. I e-mailed tech support to no avail. I tried a re-install. Nothing worked.

Then, I found Evernote.

For the grand price of nothing, I am now able to save these notes into a handy desktop interface:

The only thing I don’t like about it is the ad, but you can get rid of that and take advantage of other premium content for $5 a month. Personally, I find the free version to be everything I need and more, but I’m also mostly just saving text files. Freeloaders like myself get 40MB monthly upload allowance; paying the monthly fee gets you 500MB.

Evernote will also do audio notes and allow you to post notes by e-mail, though I haven’t played with these services yet. The iPhone app is pretty sweet too for grabbing and saving items to yourself, even if you’re only using it on an iPod touch, like myself. And if you forget your mobile and don’t have your own computer handy, you can sign in via the Web site and grab whatever you need.

Another handy feature is the Mozilla plugin, which allows you to save copies of Web pages, snippets of text or photos in one click.

Keeping things organized is really easy too. You can search by file name or by keeping related notes organized through tags. You can also organize notes into several different notebooks.

Overall, Evernote offers a lot of bang for no bucks. And it sure works a helluva lot better than Stickies.

GIFmation for the Mac rocks

Here’s the challenge I was presented with: We wanted to display a banner on the home page of our Web site to promote ColumbiaTomorrow.com, an RJI project designed to be the go-to site to learn about growth and development issues in Columbia.

I’ve been playing with the idea in the back of my head for a while that there must be some kind of nifty little freeware package that could create an animated banner. Ideally, I’ll find time in my busy schedule to learn Flash sometime soon. Until then, I give you GIFmation.

Here’s what I created for the Missourian’s Web site with it:

columbiatomorrowfinal

Not bad for a beginner, eh? (you can also view it here)

All I did was make a pair of quick slides in Photoshop, then imported them into GIFmation. I added a 2-second delay between slides and saved it. Voila!

One important note: Add .gif at the end of the file. I had to do that to get WordPress to take it.

The installation was seamless, and the software is easy enough to navigate if you poke around a little. The downsize tool and crop tool are both really difficult to use and require a proportion wheel to get right. So make sure your slides are the size you want before loading them into GIFmation.

Although that aspect is clunky, for free software, you can’t beat how easy it is to slap your slides together into an animated .gif file. For the above example, it was load the slides, set the delay, hit save. Short and sweet.

The interface feels like it should be part of Creative Suite, making it easy to figure out if you’re familiar with InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, et al. For simple banners and other animated images, it’s just the right tool.

A registered copy is $49.95, but the demo version allows use of up to three slides per .gif. And really, if you’re going to use more than three, shouldn’t you be using Flash?