TrackerNews and the Human Algorithm, PopTech, PopTracker and a Challenge

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At TrackerNews, our approach is a little different from most aggregators. While they focus either on the latest or most popular stories, we focus on context. Stories cycle through the site in groups to deliver  a more faceted experience: breaking news is paired with archived stories, research papers, blog posts, websites, book reviews, e-books – print, audio, video. Every link is researched, reviewed, summarized, curated. Stephen Baker, former BusinessWeek journalist and author of the The Numerati, summed up it best: “TrackerNews puts the human algorithm back in the equation.”

We are not opposed to automated news feeds. Indeed, we scour them all the time. But they tend to skew to the new and the popular. Likewise, search engines often have hidden skews, affecting the order in which links appear (sponsored links, deals with news organizations, SEO tricks, etc.). Thousands of links make come up in a Google search, but who ever goes beyond the second page? As Mies van der Rohe pithily noted, “Less is more.”

"TrackerNews" Screen Grab Slide Show

Over the last year, TrackerNews has covered everything from malaria, mapping and microfinance, to chemical spills, earthquakes, political protests, human trafficking, energy, lighting, mobile tech, logistics, floods, famines, urban farming, the bushmeat trade, rapid diagnostics, mental illness and global warming. Our searchable database, which also includes an extensive collections of resources, has swelled to 3,000+ links and is just beginning to get interesting. (see slide show)


Ironically, as our database grows day by day, becoming a richer and more useful resource, its very size may itself start to become an issue.

The PopTech ’09 Tracker (“PopTracker”) is an experiment in managing a tremendous number of links that relate to a single overarching subject. Conference presenters, teachers, fellows, along with PopTech-sponsored programs,  have been sorted into categories, then listed alphabetically. Between 4 and 10 related links are attached to each person or program, including presentation videos (added as they become available).

Even in its bare-bones format, the PopTracker shows promise as an at-a-glance research tool. Ultimately, our goal is to create a tool that will not only give everyone the ability to curate and organize information themselves, but also to share content with others using graphically intuitive templates. This is just a first step.

It has, however, been a really fun one.

PopTech 2009 Tracker / "PopTracker"

With a conference as sprawling as PopTech, it  is impossible for anyone to take it all in, even someone attending every lecture (and a blur of parties…). Researching and selecting links has been an education, full of delightful surprises. The goal was not to be exhaustive, but to provide insight. The biggest challenge? Trying to figure out which category best captured someone’s work.

Where do you put a Willie Smits, for example? His agro-forestry schemes repair the environment, while providing both food and energy. Or what about Michael Wesch, whose YouTube research deftly weaves together pop culture, social networks and cultural anthropology?  Or Daniel Nocera, whose “biomimick a molecule” fuel cell design not only has the potential to provide an endless supply of clean cheap power,  but purify polluted water in the process?

These are people who live hyphenated lives, who think between the boxes. Solar textiles. MacBook-ified cello music. “Scent” dinners. Cyber-security-digital-book-translation. Urban agriculture.

The PopTracker is itself a mash-up as well, riffing on the conference and going beyond it with links to research, books, music and  interviews. Yet while it provides a good way to get a sense of the whole, any cross-disciplinary links must still be made by readers. So…


To the graphically gifted (and you know who you are Frog Design, Winterhouse, Nick Bilton, Nancy Duarte, Nicholas Felton, et al):

A data visualization showing connections and potential connections between the ’09 PopTech’ers.

The prize:

A “Green Bar” link on TrackerNews & a permanent  “Red Bar” link on the PopTracker!

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