Google's new dataset search is a game-changer, plus 10 tools for investigative journalism

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CRUNCHING NUMBERS: One stat. Two stat. Red stat. Blue stat. Google’s new dataset search features a Seussian assortment of data in a searchable format. It works toward solving a huge issue in the data journalism world: finding the data you need in the first place. And though it’s full of important data, it’s also a little fun. In a few minutes, I found an expansive collection of food photos (waffles and apple pies) and the nutritional information for all the beer MillerCoors sells.

INVESTIGREAT: I typically shy away from sharing lists of tools — there’s almost always one big stinker that fouls up the whole thing. But Samantha Sunne, my fellow digital tools newsletter writer, just put together a fantastic list of 10 investigative tools for the Global Investigative Journalism Network. Her list contains a few of my favorite tools, including:

  • Hunter.io, an easy-to-use tool to find just about anyone’s email address (sign-in required).
  • Sqoop, a research tool to find and get alerted about new documents of interest, such as business filings and court records (I’m one of only a couple hundred LaFormes in the world, so I have one set up for my last name — hoping for interesting Thanksgiving fodder.).
  • Klaxon, my favorite tool for tracking changes on websites. It takes a minute to set up, but it will alert you to every change made on whatever web page you want once it’s ready.

BAD NEWS: Google released a tool called Inbox about four years ago that changed the game when it comes to email. A few of its great features were borrowed from popular plugins, like the ability to “snooze” an email. A few were more original, like a bundling feature that grouped similar emails together. Though the tool was popular in a niche community, it rarely saw updates, and Google announced last week that Inbox would close in six months. But there’s good news. Many of the features that incubated in Inbox made their way to the new Gmail. If you’re a detractor, give it a chance. It looks a little different but the new feature set is worth it.

WRITE WITH STYLE: Every now and then I pull down the old AP Stylebook for a little help and find … nothing. The guide has made tremendous changes over the past decade or so, but there’s only so much you can expect from a single, annually updated book. That’s where the Conscious Style Guide comes in. The guide is fluid, ebbing and flowing along with changes in culture and language. The guide is especially great for honing in on more inclusive and empowering terms. It’s the Pottermore to the AP Stylebook’s Harry Potter novels.  

STYLE WITH WRITING: Every time I give a talk about social media, someone inevitably asks about how to grow his or her account. There are plenty of wrong answers, but no single one right answer, especially on a platform like Instagram where the rules change so fast. Author Jane Friedman’s 10 Instagram tips for writers offers a good start. If you can only remember a handful, go with post often and engage engage engage. And if your pictures look like you took them with an old potato, the next item can help.

PICTURE THIS: This headline from The New York Times spoke right to my heart: “You Took Lousy iPhone Photos. Here’s How to Make Them Beautiful.” Tech writer J. D. Biersdorfer shows us how, mostly through the use of iOS’s easy-to-overlook adjustments panel. To find it, open a photo, tap the “Edit” button and look for the button that looks like a guitar amp dial on the bottom or right side of your screen. Here’s a bonus tip from me. If you’re using an older iPhone without the fancy portrait mode but are looking to achieve some separation between your subject and background, try an app called Camera Plus. It adds a lot of the pre-shot adjustments you’d have available in a DSLR. (h/t Burkhard Luber)

HOW THEY DID IT: Last week, on live TV, Weather Channel meteorologist Erika Navarro stood calmly as she was inundated with three feet of storm surge. Then six feet. Then nine. Navarro wasn’t in any trouble though, because the surge was completely computer-generated (in real time, no less) using technology built to create video games. I wrote about how this technology works (and how Jim Cantore narrowly missed a board to the head) earlier this year.

NWS IN BRF:

  • Apple launched a series of new phones and updated the Apple Watch last week. The big takeaways for journalists: The new top-level iPhones allow photographers to adjust depth of field after the photo has been taken, several models offer dual SIM support (great for international reporters) and Apple seems to think its Watch is the future of its company.
  • A new study from Pew found that most Americans get their news via social media, even though many of them have concerns about its accuracy. Why do they do it then? Often because it’s convenient, the study found.
  • A report from the International Women’s Media Foundation and Trollbusters documents the dangers for women who work in media today. Most striking: Nearly one-third of female journalists consider leaving the profession due to online attacks and threats. This is not OK.
  • Got a good idea about how artificial intelligence might shape the news industry in the future? The Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Initiative wants to hear from you. The well-backed group will invest $750,000 in the best ideas.
  • Dubya dubya dubya dot dead dot com? Wired has an interesting story about Google’s on-again, off-again plan to do away with URLs as we know them. I’m onboard as long as it doesn’t make me feel like I’m using AOL again.

A little personal news: I’m heading out of town for a very epicurean 10-day vacation in France and Belgium starting Wednesday. If you see this before Wednesday morning, I welcome any and all tips about food, wine and beer in Paris, Reims, Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges (if you see this after Wednesday morning, send me a poem/haiku/salty limerick for when I get back).

I’m scheduling a newsletter for next week, but don’t be surprised when it doesn’t have the latest digital tools news (and don’t get mad that my suddenly one-track mind wrote a newsletter all about tools for vacationing and unwinding). I’ll see you in October.

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