News apps use Facebook profile information to create personalized data tools

USA Today’s interactive feature 9/11+Me is packed with data about key events that happened in the 10 years since the terrorist attacks. That’s the “9/11” part, but the more interesting piece is the “+Me."

When you log in with Facebook, the app uses your age and location to customize its visualization of the victims, post-9/11 federal grants and memorial sites.

It’s the latest example of how news organizations are building personalization into their news apps and online data tools. The first step of personalization is to know something about the user, and tapping a person’s Facebook information is one way to do that.

In some cases, personalization can enrich users’ experience by letting them see what their Facebook friends have done with your news app.

For example, The New York Times’ Oscars site this year enabled users to fill out their own awards ballots; by logging in with Facebook, they could see ballots from their friends and share their own. It turns out my three friends who entered ballots all accurately predicted Colin Firth and Natalie Portman as best actor and actress. That social layer enriches my experience beyond the typical Oscars-ballot contests that many news organizations run.

In other cases, such as 9/11+Me, an app can draw on personal information from a user’s Facebook profile to help him find information. Another example is ProPublica’s data tool, “The Opportunity Gap,” which compares school performance.

After having users log in with Facebook, ProPublica accesses their education history and shows them data about schools they attended. It also lets them analyze the data in comparison to other schools, and share what they learned back on to Facebook for their friends to see and discuss.

All of these applications use Facebook’s social graph API, which grants access to the personal information and social activity from a person’s Facebook account. To spark your own ideas, imagine how a news app could show someone relevant data based on knowing any of the following information about the users or their friends:

  • Birthday (and by calculation, their age)
  • Hometown
  • Location
  • Schools they attended
  • Past and present employers
  • Places they’ve checked in to
  • Events they have coming up
  • Activities they enjoy
  • Personal interests
  • Relationship status
  • Religious or political beliefs

Those are some of the data your news app can ask Facebook users to grant API access to. Of course, you will need their permission up front, and Facebook will tell them each piece of information you request access to. So don’t ask for more than you need, and consider explaining to users why you need each item and what you will do with it, to make them comfortable.

Data is becoming a bigger and bigger part of journalism. As news organizations continue to create data tools for the public to explore, I hope we’ll see a lot more using Facebook and other social APIs. When used right, they can help turn a pile of data into relevant insights and shared experiences.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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