Cars vs Public transport

For this assignment I chose to focus on a subject that has been controversial in my city (Guadalajara, Mexico), the public debate between invest in public transport and non motorised mobility vs invest in pro-automobile infrastructure.

One of the main argument that has been used from the pro-automobile side is that the government has to build new roads, tunnels and bridges to improve the mobility in the city, on the other hand the evidence shows that building more roads to solve the urban mobility is like trying to solve obesity with larger pants. It does not solve the real problem.

The approach to the debate was in a form of an infographic, trying to show the facts in a more friendly way.

Clic to see the infographic:

Screenshot 2015-03-10 14.51.07

Does having parents of the same sex have a negative effect on children?

(Version in Medium is better and it has the video)

On March 8th, 2015, I went to Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Massachussets, with a poster that contained the following question: Does having parents of the same sex have a negative effect on children?

One month before, Cuban blogger and journalist, Francisco Rodriguez — better known as Paquito el de Cuba- had won a contest launched by Cibercuba with the most popular picture on Valentin’s day.

“Since I signed our picture up on February, 4th until today when they finally announced we were the winners with 439 votes, I thought about the opportunity that this initiative offered me to make visible other forms of love that never appear in the traditional media of the island during this celebration”, wrote Paquito.

The picture showed the first time his son Javier, Michelangelo, his partner, and Paquito shared some quality time together. Continue reading

Thoughts on ‘Climate Audit’; Why We Need ‘Fact Fight Club’

How do you fact check a blog like Climate Audit? The site details what the authors see as inconsistencies and exaggerations in the work of climate scientists, so they see themselves as the fact checkers. Yet in many cases, the site simply reprints private e-mails and quotes from climate scientists in which they are revealing the messiness of the scientific process, and suggests that this messiness is proof that the scientists are wrong about their conclusions on climate change.

For example, in one post, a climate auditor posts an e-mail from a scientist and writes: “Not sure what this email is about but it doesn’t sound very good.”

The site is full of details, charts, and graphs. It feels like proof of something. And the site details every time a climate auditor has their FOIA requests declined or redacted, suggesting that such secrecy is in itself proof that the scientists are wrong and hare hiding their true findings.

One thing is very clear: the scientists and the climate auditors don’t understand each other. There’s a culture clash full of misunderstandings.

Facing Off: Why Fact Fight Club

I can’t think of a way to create a single piece of media that can refute the ‘climate audit’ site. But here’s an idea for a service that could make a small contribution.

What if we set up a Web site that could match up strangers who hold opposing views and allow them to participate in a live video chat with each other. The participants would get instructions on how to structure their conversation. They’d be asked to spend the first 5 to 10 minutes answering an ice-breaker question and getting to know each other. Then they’d each give a short statement on why they either agree or disagree with global warming. Then they’d have a chance to give rebuttals. Let’s call it Fact Fight Club, though that name is intentionally provocative and probably not the best name for the actual service.

I built a very simple working version of Fact Fight Club using Blogger:
Screenshot 2014-03-04 09.58.10

The site relies on a service developed here at the Media Lab called Unhangouts, which makes it easy to set up Google Hangout video chats.

I tried to find two people to try this, but I wasn’t able to pull that off by the deadline. The concern, of course, is that the two people would take the “fight” in the name to heart and that the experience could feel more like a live-action flame war than a productive meeting of polite citizens. But I think there’s something to this idea of connecting people to those who disagree with them — to pop the “filter bubble” — and to do so in video so that hopefully people might be more civil because they can see the person they’re talking to.

I’ll be curious to see what people think of this idea.

Starbucks and Israel: A conspiracy theory?

For the past eight years, the coffee mega-giant’s reputation has been smeared in the Middle East. Leftists activists across the region have claimed that the organisation is a “Zionist entity” which gives direct support to the Israeli government – and even to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Pro-palestinian groups have called for a boycott of the group and staged protests outside Starbucks franchises in Beirut, London and in the Palestinian Territories. Although the global firm has tried to refute the claim many times, its reputation remains tarnished as many potential clients, in the Middle East and abroad, refuse to go anywhere near the Seattle-bred giant.

What and when: Pro-Zionist rhetoric and funding

The conspiracy theory exploded in July,11, 2006 when a fake letter, allegedly written by Shultz, the CEO and founder of Starbucks, confirmed the company’s active support to the state of Israel. The satirical letter was originally written by Andrew Winkler, the editor of a anti-Zionist website called ZioPedia. According to NOWLebanon, the statement was read by over 100,000 users on the site alone. Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.42.48 AM

Starbucks-boycotters claim that Shultz himself, a  businessman “born to a Jewish family”, has made anti-zionist remarks at Jewish congregations such as the Temple De Hirsh SInai in Seattle in the past. They also point out to the fact that he received ‘Israel’s 50th Anniversary Tribute Award’ from the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah in 1998 for “playing a key role in promoting a close alliance between the US and Israel“, according to his Wikipedia page. Activists also argue that “Schultz made donations to the charity the Jewish National Fund, and that this used to be posted on [Starbucks’] website”. As such, boycott campaigns claim that the organisation financially supports the State of Israel, and has deliberately deleted that information from its website, but with not other evidence.

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.43.53 AM


The verdict is…. FALSE.

With some thorough-fact checking, it appears that the Starbucks’s CEO might have pro-Israeli tendencies but this does not imply that his company financially supports Israel, or that he personally benefits from the company revenues. The company is indeed publicly traded and as such all of its financial statements are publicly available.

Potential counter-strategies

Rather than publish statements which reiterate and refute the conspiracy theory, Starbucks should pursue a more pro-active strategy by emphasizing on its positive role in the Middle East. Indeed, the company has in the past tried to distance itself from the CEO’s actions by releasing the following statement (which is for some reason currently unavailable on its website):

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 9.36.48 PM

The coffee giant has also released anti-libel statements regarding its activities in the Middle East in 2010, in which it repeats and refutes more than 3 times (!) the Zionist claim.

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.45.15 AM

Effective PR strategy for the MENA region

The company should reinforce the impartial and maybe positive role it plays in the MENA region by highlighting the following points:

  1. Buff up its MENA page by highlighting the revenue, employment, and growth it is creating in the Arab world. Starbucks needs to make the argument that its franchises generate growth for local markets, and do not completely go back to the conglomerate.
  2. Capitalize on the fact that Starbucks has actually shut down all its operations in Israel/Palestine since 2003 and that all its Middle East branches are operated by a Kuwaiti-based group called Alshaya. While the company publishes this on its website (“We are also committed to hiring locally, providing jobs to thousands of local citizens in the countries where we operate.”), it should do a better job at outlining its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy in the MENA region.
  3. Finally, the company should be aware of the complexities and the context it operates in and distance itself from Shultz if the CEO persist in making politically incorrect -or sensitive- comments. The company should, and can, publicly release its financial statements to demonstrate its impartial nature and hold critics at bay.

Eating meat as bad as smoking cigarettes, says study. Does it really?


Update: Only upon posting this exercise did I think to Google for stories and find the above CBS “news piece.”

The following is an exercise in marking up a EurekAlert press release with three different fact-checking schemes. Bolded sentences denote hyperbole. Yellow highlighting is linked to a passage in the scientific study. Grey highlighting refers to citations of previous studies. I was later turned on to the Chrome plugin Churnalism which does something similar–though much spiffier–by comparing news articles to press releases. Here’s the Longo et al. study.

Click below to see the “web app” in action.

Fact checking: 11 ways to please Romanian women

I looked into an e-book called “100 Ways to Please a Romanian Woman”.

The resulting work is here. (Or click on the image below).

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 4.35.39 PM

Notes: What I was most interested was the second part of our assignment: the presentation of the information once verified/checked/contextualized, and if this can make a difference in retention or changing one’s mind. I was also interested in whether one can turn a seemingly trivial topic (that is also heavily stereotyped in this case) into an opportunity to transmit information or deliver context.

I decided to use Zeega because it plays seamlessly with animated GIFs, which are a staple of our current meme culture, and tried to structure the resulting piece as a listicle, a popular form of content delivery.

As a journalist, I couldn’t help thinking that if I was doing this for publication in a different format (a more “serious” one for lack of a better word), I would have done further checking and contextualizing of the sources (adding caveat to caveat), arguably to a point where it might have bogged down the experience. One potential solution is to provide jumping off points from each of these topics – alcohol consumption, natality figure, religious practices etc – into well-produced and complex platforms where the public can learn more from, while also interacting with the data. (I’m thinking of the work the New York Times has done on upward mobility.)

Fact-checking the Fords: “The Yahoos”

Rob Ford was elected in 2010 as the Mayor of Toronto. Over the past year, he has been the center of controversy related to drug use and possible criminal activity. In the media frenzy of the past few months, Rob Ford’s staunchest defender has been his brother, Doug, who is currently a member of Toronto City Council.

Mayor Ford and Councillor Ford recently launched “Ford Nation”, a YouTube channel. Prior to the YouTube channel, the Fords previously hosted “The City with Mayor Rob Ford,” a popular radio call-in show on AM radio, and the short-lived “Ford Nation” television show on the Sun News Network.

I decided to fact-check one of the Fords’ YouTube videos focused on the views of Mayor Ford’s likely election opponents (“the yahoos”) in municipal elections later this year.

At first, I wanted to make a transcript of the video and score every sentence in the video for accuracy. Only then, in my view, can one overcome Matt Hemingway’s accusation of selection bias in media fact-checking. After some consideration, though, I wasn’t convinced that such an analysis would be interesting — it seems that fact-checking is most useful for controversial or attention-grabbing statements. With this in mind, I used my best judgment to select several assertions made by the Fords. (As a future exercise, it could be fun to measure attention or controversy automatically through signals like Twitter activity.)

The subject of the video is public transit in Toronto. The Fords support building new subway lines, while many of their opponents favor light-rail transit (LRTs). Along with differences in cost, construction time, and coverage, the subway-versus-light-rail debate often stirs emotions in Toronto — Mayor Ford’s base in the suburbs supports new subways, while progressives in the downtown core generally support more affordable options. A reasonable (albeit somewhat LRT-favoring) primer on Toronto subways versus LRTs can be found here.

As an additional exercise, I decided to apply a binary true/false criteria for this assignment: A statement is true if and only if all of its clauses are true, and false otherwise. The selection and judgment of degrees of truth, in my view, is also a human and potentially error-prone process.

Doug Ford (DF) (0:35): “Anywhere in the world, you go to any major city… and what you get is rapid underground transit from point A to point B.”

Assessment: True

At 2.8 million residents, Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the fourth-largest in North America. Wikipedia lists two other, smaller Canadian cities (Vancouver and Montreal) and thirteen other North American cities (Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Juan, and Washington, D.C.) that have subways [Wikipedia]. While all of these cities have a mixture of subway and non-subway transit lines, it appears that Doug Ford’s statement, strictly speaking, is true.

Rob Ford (RF) (1:22): The Mayor makes a few statements about the transit views of other likely mayoral candidates.

“First… we have a former budget chief… who doesn’t want subways.”

Assessment: True

RF is referring to David Soknacki, a former city councillor. According to Soknacki’s campaign website, “Although he’s a lifelong Scarborough resident, David is the ONLY major mayoral candidate with the political courage to promise to cancel the Bloor-Danforth subway extension in Scarborough, and replace it with modern, cost-effective LRT plan that was already partly designed – and fully funded.” [David Soknacki Campaign Site]


“We have the head of the TTC who says, ‘I want LRTs,’ and then she flip-flopped to subways.”

Assessment: True

City Councillor Karen Stintz, who chairs the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has declared her candidacy for mayor. The Toronto Star notes, “In 2012, Stintz outmanoeuvred Ford and won new fans on the left when she persuaded council to return to Miller’s plan for above-ground light rail lines on Finch Ave., Sheppard Ave., Eglinton Ave. and in the Scarborough RT corridor. In 2013, she joined with Ford, and lost many of those new fans, in making a successful push for a subway in the Scarborough RT corridor, and a tax hike to pay for it, rather than cheaper light rail.” [Toronto Star]


“There’s other candidates, [e.g.] people leading the civic action group, we want to have user fees… revenue tools… LRTs.”

Assessment: False

RF is referring in this statement to John Tory, a past mayoral candidate and provincial politician who heads the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance.

It is true that John Tory supports new taxes to build transit: The Toronto Star notes, “Tory, 59, is a vocal advocate of the need for new taxes to pay for transit expansion. Ford imposed a new property tax to pay for the planned subway extension to the Scarborough RT, but he criticized Tory last week for holding “tax, tax, tax” views.” [Toronto Star]

Tory, however, is not opposed to all forms of subways: he supports a downtown subway relief line, as noted in his introductory campaign video. [John Tory Campaign Site]. Therefore, Rob Ford’s statement is false.

DF (2:22) discusses public-private partnerships as a source of transit funding:

“You go out there, you get private sector funding, folks… you go out for the public-private partnerships, they refuse to do that. When you build a subway station, you make sure there is density on top of the subway station.”

Assessment: False

I did not find explicit evidence of the three aforementioned mayoral candidates being opposed to public-private partnerships (P3) to fund public transit. Soknacki is on record in support of P3s this year, [Globe and Mail]; Tory has support them in the past [Globe and Mail]. It appears that Stintz is most strongly in favor of pursuing funding from the provincial and federal levels of government for transit funding [National Post], but stating that all three candidates oppose P3s is false.


“So what that does, you get the pension funds, that we have two, here, the Teacher’s Pension Fund, and OMERS, and guess what, folks? They’re developing and putting their money in London and New York! Because the councilors in Toronto, a lot of them don’t believe in getting the private sector to build subways.”

Assessment: Unknown

I did not find specific evidence of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System  (OMERS) or the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, two of the largest pension funds in the province, investing in the London and New York transit systems.

Rob Ford: “‘Revenue tools…’ means gas tax. Our friend at Civic Action wants to tax people. The first thing that he did when he got in at Queen’s Park was give a 35% pay increase to all MPPs.”

Assessment: False

As leader of the Official Opposition in the Ontario Legislature, John Tory did indeed vote in favor of a pay increase for Members of Provincial Parliament. However, the increase was 25%, not 35% [National Post] The vote also occurred in December 2006; Tory won a by-election and entered the Ontario Legislature in March 2005 [Ottawa Citizen].