Lies, damned lies and the CNN Politics App

CNN Digital's head of products John Hashimoto discusses the US media giant's first, and maybe last, mobile-only experience

There are 'lies, damned lies, and statistics' goes the old adage. But in the era of so-called ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, raw data is proving a more valued source of information than our partisan politicians and media outlets.

In the build up to an election, especially last year’s presidential race in the US, the truth seems more difficult to find than ever.

It was with this thinking in April last year that CNN launched its Politics app: a data-centric app to tell the ‘story of every twist and turn of the race for the White House’.

Stood up in less than three months, the app – CNN’s first ever mobile-only experience – scored 400,000 downloads in the month of election and became the go-to feed for the latest figures and analysis.

As well as the data it serves users, behind the scenes, data drives the app's development which continues to this day. Back-end analytics have given CNN insights into how users digest the news, the interaction between its channels, and now help guide the company as a modern media brand.

"I don't think there's any doubt in the company that this app, like our political coverage overall, is just so part of who CNN is and who CNN will continue to be," John Hashimoto, CNN Digital's head of products, told Computerworld.

The data election

Early on in the build up to the 2016 presidential vote, CNN defined it as ‘the data election’.

"Last year's election was a story that could be told through data and data insights. And that's not surprising. This is a trend right. Data is a big thing these days and certainly has been for political races for the last couple of elections,” Hashimoto explains.

The editorial team – based in Atlanta, Georgia – sought to create an election ‘utility’ that would serve up "real quick, let me see the highlights" data visualisations, as Hashimoto puts it, plus deeper dive analysis if required.

"The proposition was: ‘Whose winning right now and why is she or he winning?’ That kind of simplified approach. This app was aimed as much at influencers and people who are political junkies, as a general audience. We wanted to make it something like a utility – every day, a barometer of sorts of what's going on in election today, in this very, very seesaw election. That was the goal.”

CNN’s product studio worked with CA Technologies to draw up some options for how the app might function, putting them before the editorial and business executives. After they “all circled the same one” work began immediately to meet a three month deadline.

At the same time the app was being built by a 10-strong CNN team and assistant from vendors, a bespoke CMS that allowed editors to create and publish data visualisations was also being developed.

So you can imagine how much hard work went into that and overtime went into getting that done,” Hashimoto remembers. “Very intense.”

Pick a card

The app provides a slick user interface, using an approach that CNN calls ‘card-based storytelling’. User swipe left and right through cards which display latest graphs and visualisations, then can scroll down on each card to display editorial analysis and articles.

"It's a very powerful convention which resonates with a mobile audience," Hashimoto says. "I can get my headline this way in a very visual way. It's pretty cool. It's like a magazine cover for each thing. Some people that's all they need, but the option to go deeper is great. Skim and scroll kind of thinking.”

CNN used CA Technologies API management software to transfer and aggregate data points from a number of sources including CNN polling data, Federal Election Commission data and the CNN/Pivit Political Prediction Market.

CA’s App Experience Analytics tool was used to guage app use, which has given CNN a new perspective of news consumption.

"We can watch our users like any other news user go through that day and watch their touch points for news,” Hashimoto says.

During CNN’s political TV shows for example, when the app’s editor appeared on set to share what was happening with viewers, the company saw huge spikes in user activity and download rates.

In November last year, downloads for CNN Politics exceeded a year’s worth of downloads for both Politico and The Washington Post.

Keeping on the edge

Though the presidential election is long since finished, the app is certainly not.

“The election was [the app’s] whole reason of being,” says Hashimoto. “But we're lucky in a way: ever since election night this has been the story, more than anyone could have perhaps imagined.”

The app’s editorial team – which is now being bolstered by the company’s growing number of specialised data journalists – is now looking at how to incorporate Google trends data into visualisations, particularly in key counties in the build up to the senate elections in November 2018. This data will also be used to analyse how voter sentiment is changing nationwide.

CNN Politics could be the media giant’s last mobile native app, however, with future developments likely to be done online and optimised for mobile.

“It’s an easier more scaleable model, and to make your mobile web behave more like a native app is actually doable,” Hashimoto says. “And who wants to download another app these days?”

Across its operation, CNN will always investigate how new technologies can be used to tell stories, Hashimoto explains.

(Even if it doesn’t always work out, like CNN’s short-lived, citizen journalist targetted Google Glass app iReport.)

“We are investing in VR, it's just a new form of storytelling, so that makes sense to us. We will keep our finger on where AR is going, there are some really compelling use cases for news in an AR world,” Hashimoto says.

“At times like this when news becomes more essential to peoples' lives, which it clearly is, that just underscores everything we're about, and why it's important to stay very aggressive on that front. We will continue to be on the edge of these things, as we should be. People expect us to be – we always have been.”

The author spoke to John Hashimoto on the sidelines of the CA Built to Change Summit, and travelled to Santa Clara as a guest of CA.

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