Town Hall Index vs. The News Cycle

We reached out to Chris Gillett, a previous contributor to our blog and current economics student at Texas A&M University, to ask him about Town Hall Index, his most recent project. 

He says that the idea came to him after he noticed how the 24-hour news cycle fails to assess the significance of current events on longer timescales. His solution was to take on a “weekend hack project” over the course of a three-month period, culminating in TownHallIndex.com. The website’s homepage describes itself as “a clear, comprehensive, raw-data view of America.” Its main areas of focus are Media Narratives, the White House, the Democratic Primary, Economy, and Culture– all of which are updated daily.

Oscillas: What motivated you to take on this project?  

Chris: I noticed that often a story that felt very important one day would fade from memory and relevance the next week, so I wanted to make a dashboard for news consumption that would always keep the big picture front and center.

Oscillas: How long did you work on THI? 

Chris: THI was my weekend hack project for the last three months, so it took two weeks of total work to complete what I have now.

Oscillas: What tools/resources have you used for this project?

Chris: I have Python scripts that access dozens of data sources every day, about half via API, half by scraping. It’s more than 10,000 individual data point every day, mostly collected with the requests and BeautifulSoup libraries. These scripts are run in an AWS EC2, and the data is stored in an S3 bucket. I generate graphics using Jinja2 to insert the latest data into HTML templates. I use a Flask web app to serve these HTML pages on TownHallIndex.com, and I use imgkit to make images out of the HTML graphics for the twitter account, @ElectionsIndex. The entire project is completely automated.

Oscillas: How have your views of the news/media changed since you’ve begun using THI as your primary means of news consumption? 

Chris: [I’ve realized two things; first,] that “the news” is very broad and there are a lot of subcategories within it. There are lots of different types of reporting and commentating jobs, with some more beneficial to society than others. I’ve especially gained a lot of respect for the reporters with relationships at organizations relevant to their beat who make public information that would otherwise remain closed in organizations or informal personal networks.

There’s a page on THI that shows what terms are trending on the major news stations alongside trends on Twitter, Google, and Wikipedia. This has helped me develop an intuition for how the different stations prioritize their coverage and what actually resonates with the public.

Oscillas: How have your views of public events and news stories changed since you’ve begun using THI?

Chris: I can’t attribute any changes in opinion to THI. I don’t think data alone can change most minds – you need qualitative prose analysis for that. I think this is an advantage of THI though: it just shows you your world, and it doesn’t do anything funny to your opinions.

THI hasn’t changed my opinions, but it has improved my attitudes. Keeping the big picture front and center keeps me sane. I can see how the different stations are prioritizing their coverage, what people are actually talking/searching/reading about, and how markets, economic statistics, and betting odds are responding. Seeing society from this vantage point gives me a clarity and focus that I’ve not found anywhere else.

Oscillas: It seems that one of the primary goals was to get away from sensationalism/tribalism present in the media today – are these issues worse than before? What do you see as some of the primary causes? If you see things as getting worse, do you have any views on what should be done to counteract these forces?

Chris: The news business was hit with a double whammy. Targeted ads wrecked their ad business, and the ease of sharing and copying information disrupted the logic of news production. Most innovation in news since then has been in the direction of marginally adapting to this new environment rather than overcoming it – more shareable content rather than categorically unique content. I’d like to see more experimentation and investment in original news and discourse apparatuses that use the capabilities unique to a digital culture for a higher purpose.

Oscillas: Any other comments you’d like to add that we haven’t asked about?

Chris: As for news consumers, I think anyone fed up with their current news options should experiment with using THI has a jumping off point for their news consumption. People are telling me that they’ve set TownHallIndex.com as their homepage to try this. Being more intentional about our media diets can only be a good thing, so I’m excited to hear how that works out.

Visit www.townhallindex.com to see what’s currently trending throughout the online news cycle.

To learn more about how to increase business efficiency through data and automation, contact CJ Black: cj@oscillas.com.