Concept Modeling is Hard

Concept Modeling is a method used to visually express understanding. It forces the author to indicate the explicit relationships between the concepts that make up a domain. I became interested in this approach back when Bryce Glass created a very visually compelling one to explain Flickr (10 years ago!).

Flickr User Model, v0.2
Bryce Glass, 2005

I’ve talked to Bryce about how to do these things and how hard it is, and I feel like every time I try to do one I fail and abandon it before I get to a place where it can be useful for anything.

Since starting at NPR three months ago, I’ve met lots of people with very different answers to questions about how NPR works. Not conflicting, but nuanced based on their role (and using very specialized language). I thought creating a Concept Model would be a good way to capture these perspectives and hopefully generate an artifact that could help people start conversations from a common base of understanding so they could more quickly dig in deeper into whatever topic they need to address.

This past week was Serendipity Days at NPR (often called hackdays/weeks in other places) a time for people to work on things that they wouldn’t normally work on, but that are useful to the collective. So I decided to try to get others to help create a Concept Model to explain NPR and how users relate to it. Being new to the domain (NPR) makes me ill equipped to explain it, but I thought I could facilitate the process and get smarter and more qualified folks to contribute the content I lack.

We started out with a free-listing exercise generating one concept per post-it of “things that make up the NPR ecosystem”, then clustered like-items by affinity. First inspection showed that most things were quite understandable among us: the relationship between NPR and local stations, the financial model behind NPR, even how NPR plays out in social media, but the bucket of things we labeled “content” was a complete mess. There was very little clarity around what an “episode” meant in the context of radio versus podcasts, for example. So we decide to dig into this area more deeply to make that understanding more explicit.

Freelisting followed by affinity clustering

It was unavoidable: get 3 information architects in front of a whiteboard discussing definitions and you will very quickly see a taxonomy conversation shape up. As we discussed the differences in concepts and their hierarchical relationship across radio, podcasts, articles, photo essays, apps and web apps, we needed more robust language and structure that a general mapping was not offering. We were really talking about the Content Model needs of the whole organization.

The blob

So I went back to the procedural model of how you make a Concept Model and wrote down statements to define what the terms meant. This helped disambiguate situations where one term meant different concepts and single concepts that had multiple terms depending on domain.

Concept statements

Interesting to note that this did not flow well at first. My focus question was “how does NPR work?” and my statements were broad and useless. I reframed the question to “how does NPR tell stories?” and all the above came out easily: concrete and specific. A big lesson learned about Concept Modeling regarding the usefulness of the focus question. (Later iterations it became “How does NPR investigates and tells stories?”)

Once I had a good set to work with, we started visually connecting them and making the implicit relationships visible by linking the post-its on the whiteboard and using verbs to express the relationships between them.

concept model fetus

This was very revealing. We found we were missing more granularity and after flailing for a while (but asking and generating lots of new and interesting questions), we realized that we had hit a dead-end talking about this in terms of abstractions. We kept going to look at the website to see how things were actually organized, or looking up glossaries people had made internally.

Veronica suggested we map out specific examples so we could get a really concrete sense of the relationships and then see if a pattern emerged from them so we could go back to abstractions. That was brilliant and we found new terms we had not even included like “a desk”, “a beat” or the actual people that make the content. This is relevant because we observed that most of the work is organized around people, so that had to be a central construct in the model.

example relationships Screenshot 2015-05-15 15.30.14 Screenshot 2015-05-15 15.30.43

By this point we had identified something more concrete to model, but also gathered a lot of new questions we could not quite answer. For example, if a “desk” is a group of journalists that pursue a specific beat (topic area), are all groups of journalists with a topical interest a desk? It turns out the answer is no, but what are they then? The thing about Concept Models is that you need to be precise, so you have to come up with an answer in order to include a concept like this. Presumption without definition does not play well, because after all, this is about expressing understanding and vagueness is NOT understanding.

We almost got off track with the Concept Model because we needed to understand the Content Model of all of NPR for this part, but it raised the issue of how a unified Content Model would benefit the various areas that share the same concepts and relationships. This is how far we got with this exercise given how much time we had to explore, but serendipitously, I happened to tweet about what we were doing…

Paul Rissen, Data Architect from the BBC, who shares our enthusiasm for this geekery wrote back and told us that the BBC had done a lot of work in this area (Content Modeling, not Concept Modeling) and was kind enough to Skype with us for an hour and share some of the definitions, relationships and terms the BBC uses to express its content ecosystem (thanks Paul!).

This was helpful because it offered a concrete AND complete model to talk about the same things, as well as it offered different language to show us which of our terms has general application and what is just NPR lingo.

This was a few hours of work and now I’ve decided to spend more time continuing to validate the relationships with other teams and people in other roles (editors, reporters, producers, etc) to document the Concept Map as I originally intended. In addition, I drew some other conclusions from this exercise:

  • Creating a Concept Model collaboratively was WAY more productive than attempting to interview people and distill that understanding on my own, as I tried before. The process of quickly asking and answering questions together got me much further than I could have on my own.
  • I knew Concept Models were damn hard to do, but learned that the visual representation of the relationships is relatively easy in comparison to gaining agreement around the meaning of things.
  • Even though I didn’t finish the whole thing, Dan and I did a show & tell to explain how we went about it and I received a lot of positive feedback, validating that doing this and having an artifact is indeed desirable and worth pursuing (which is why I’ll continue doing it).
  • It is very easy to abandon the whole thing to avoid this complexity and attempt to write a glossary instead. Except that glossaries are definitional by nature, while Concept Models are relational. And it’s in this relationship between things that deeper meaning and understanding emerges. So, I doubt I’ll create a glossary again, unless it’s in the service of creating a Concept Model, which has already proven more useful.
  • We came to realize that the shape and emphasis of certain concepts in the diagraming was a political statement. So much so that at one point we noticed that the way we did it was a publishing-driven perspective, whereas we wanted a journalism-driven perspective. I suspect the shape/tone of the focus question is partially responsible for this. It also made me wonder if there are assumptions or principles worth stating before starting to help frame this.
  • Throughout this exercise we repeatedly asked “are we trying to illustrate what is or what should we be?”, which was revealing. The point of the Concept Model is to make the complex clear, not simpler. At the same time, the process of understanding concepts, their relationships and disambiguating things forces you to create new language and normalizing existing language, so in a sense it can express a viewpoint that some may not see as “current state”. This simply shows that there is NOT a current shared mental model of that domain.

Thank you Veronica and Dan for your patience going along with my crazy ambition to map all the things (and Kate for stopping by and answering tons of questions!). Special shout-out to Paul Rissen for being so generous with his time and expertise.

I’ll likely write another post with more details as this work progresses.

Getting Organized To Get Things Done

As I begin my 10-month adventure as a Knight-Mozilla Fellow, this seems like a good moment to re-evaluate how I’m managing my time, commitments and workflow.

I expect I’ll have to make a lot of changes in terms of tools and approaches as I shift from spending most of my time on managerial and high-level design activities to hands-on coding and collaboration on journalistic projects.

Still, there are some basic things that I need simply to maintain an organized life regardless of what I’m doing, the main one being how I manage my daily activities and commitments.

I set up and plan to maintain the following:

  • One calendar tool with multiple calendars (Google Calendar)
  • One task management tool (Todoist)
  • One email address for all correspondence (Gmail)
  • One tool to aggregate URLs to read/view (Pocket)
  • One code repo/version control tool (Github)
  • Two tools for note-taking (analog + digital)
  • Two methods for sharing reflections (twitter + blog)

Tools Set-up

Calendar (Google)

For managing commitments and events, I have the following calendars:

  • Family calendar – for all my family-related events and activities (shared with my wife)
  • Fellowship calendar – all my professional obligations and commitments
  • Personal calendar – a mix of all my other commitments (from doctor appointments to coffee with friends and larger professional development commitments outside of fellowship-related areas)

I also subscribe to my wife’s two calendars and the official calendar from the fellowship so I know what’s going on there and how all those align with my schedule.

Task Management (Todoist)

I’m a GTD (Getting Things Done) follower so as long as I have a way to capture ideas/commitments easily and am able to keep track of what I’m working on next, what other people owe me and the overall sense of what needs to happen, I’m golden.

I’ve used a variety of methods for this over the years and have been very happy with Todoist because it accommodates whatever crazy taxonomy you come up with and has amazing breadth of cross-platform implementations so it can really be ubiquitous in your life.

My particular taxonomy flavor is as follows:

I have 4 main modes I like to segregate what I’m thinking about:

  • NPR

While I had not broken things down like this at all in the past, I find that it helps me to have things organized this way so I’m not distracted by personal stuff when I’m in “work mode” and vice-versa.

I also find it helpful to break down the last two instead of keeping everything under professional so that I am able to keep good track of them independently so that I am able to keep a good balance of what work I’m doing for what (which is one of the anticipated challenges of the fellowship experience).

For each of these buckets of activities I have the expected GTD lists:

  • Waiting for…
  • Next Actions
  • Agendas
  • Projects
  • Someday/Maybe

I also have a single INBOX in Todoist which is the dumping ground for any and all things that come up during the day and I just need a place for them to go into instead of retaining them in my brain. Sometimes things go directly into the appropriate Next Actions list if it’s super well defined but most of the time they are not so it’s safer to go into Inbox so I can reflect and properly decide how to handle it later.

In short, it looks like this:

Todoist taxonomy

Because of how ToDoist is set up, this taxonomy allows me to view all lists at a glance simply by clicking the big buckets I defined, which is perfect when you are doing a daily check or weekly review. Example:

Todoist list view

If a task is directly related to a coding project, the assumption is that the project is in Github and therefore tasks are managed as Issues there.

Once I really start doing work at NPR I’ll add whatever particular approach the Visual Team uses to keep track of to-dos (probably Github issues and/or Slack).

Email (Gmail)

I take full advantage of Gmail’s inbox tabs as well as tags to manage and organize how I process incoming messages.

Gmail Tabs

I find that regardless of how well it categorizes things (which it does well and you can keep teaching it to improve matching), it helps me to chunk out the burden of going through messages (because the volume is always greater than you have the time for). If I’m really tired I know I can tackle ‘Promotions’ more easily first and feel a sense of accomplishment that makes going through ‘Primary’ less painful.

It took me a long time to really adopt tags but I now love them, specially in combination with filters so that certain things are shown pre-tagged with their relevant project name or activity which aids my scanning of the inbox and helps me get a sense of what I need to tackle.


(I tried Google’s new Inbox product and it’s not for me.)

URL Aggregator (Pocket)

Pocket is the solution to ‘tabitis‘. You know, that condition that ails all modern web denizens where you have 47 tabs open on your browser with things you loaded but aren’t really ready to read but you *really really* want to or believe will read at some point.

Tabitis sucks as keeping those open tabs is a performance hog on you machine, increases chances of crashes and, come on, you’re really just kidding yourself. Pocket has saved me from this. I see something that looks interesting, I add to Pocket (from an open tab, from a tweet, from anything really) and I can even tag to organize it and further share with others.

Basically they took what Delicious used to do, made is cross-platform and useful by focusing on the main task of “I don’t want to deal with this now but think I will later” without going overkill in the organizing aspect of the service.

Just do it, it will save your sanity. Also, it has a search so you can find anything you considered interesting at one point or another. Enough said.

Code Repo/Version Control (Github)

I haven’t really started new projects yet, but needing to have code publicly accessible and licensed, this is a really great option. I have used Github for a long time, specially issue management and so I know I’ll be setting up some crazy tagging to help with workflow, but it’s too soon to tell what/how I’ll be using it.

Note-taking (analog + digital)

For the most basic of things I have the poorest answer to. I expect this is the one that will change the most.

I’m going in with the assumption I’ll always have a notebook with me to capture anything (thought I’ll try and use it mostly for doodling and sketching) and then some other method to capture more significant textual stuff, like notes from a talk, a list of questions, etc.

I am going to try Evernote for this purpose first as I tend to take photos of whiteboards like it’s my business and have been dissatisfied with keeping photos and written words separate in the past. This needs more exploration (I tend to capture things in 10 different ways then get completely scattered and lost about where things are).

Sharing Reflections (Blog + Twitter)

I know this seems like a weird thing to add to this list, but sharing the fellowship experience is central to the spirit of OpenNews so


There is a lot more to it, but in a nutshell:

  • I check Google Calendar for what’s on the daily schedule first thing in the morning and what’s planned for the next day before I’m headed to sleep in the evening.
  • I also use those two moments to review my Next Actions lists (add anything I want to do today) and check-off stuff I’ve done.
  • I do a quick scan of the Todoist Inbox list daily for anything I can take action on the next day (or that can be scheduled for later in the calendar or as a Next Action with a date)
  • I reserve time twice daily to process Gmail inbox and work on the items in my Next Actions lists.
  • I do a weekly review to empty out my Todoist inbox and Gmail inbox. I also take a quick glance at the Projects lists to see which projects didn’t get enough love and see if I need to create Next Actions for them. I should but never actually go through all my paper notes and physical inbox during this weekly review (need to create that habit going forward).
  • I read through things I’ve saved on Pocket any time I’m idle and this is how I get a lot of reading done (waiting for the bus, while the microwave is heating stuff, when my computer is booting up, etc).
  • I always aspire to inbox zero and only handling an email once. If I read a message and there is some action to take I try to do it right then or add a Next Action where appropriate (and archive the email). That’s why having dedicated email time works instead of constantly checking email.
  • I tweet constantly because it feels like a natural extension of everyday conversations I have and augments my ability to keep in touch with the broader community I am not physically close to. I only expect that to increase in frequency over the next year (if that’s even possible).
  • I will write on this blog to share things related to the process of learning, the actual projects I work on and anything else related to the fellowship experience. My goal is to have brief reflections that are frequent (every other week) instead of long pieces that are few and far in between. I’m not sure how I’ll continue to use Medium (which I started using for broader topics outside of my core work).

I’ll check back on this post by the end of the fellowship (and maybe at some point in the middle) and note what has worked and what’s needed to change.

2015 Knight-Mozilla Fellowship

Next year I will be a fellow in the Knight-Mozilla Fellowship program run by OpenNews, where I will work with the NPR Visuals team, making fantastic things that help empower people with tools and disseminate the spirit of open source journalism. I am very excited about this opportunity and have lots to say about why I decided to take this path and why it’s important. That deserves more writing so I’ll get to it later.

I plan to capture my journey to keep track of what I do and what I learn. I’m starting with a timeline visualization of the Fellowship milestones thus far, from first becoming aware of it through announcing my participation.

Check it out.