Silk: Data-Driven Content Management

Traditionally, the perceived role of the written-word journalist is to depict an event, a place, or a scene, in eloquent prose. In most respects, this traditional perception still holds true, even in today’s multimedia-rich publishing climate.

There has, however, been one seismic change in the industry, which has completely altered how stories are written: data. Big data. Data so huge that it has only entered the mainstream in tandem with the recent advent of powerful home computers. Now, stories are told as much in numbers, averages and probabilities as they are in expressive paragraphs. But, bizarrely, the internet has yet to catch up; ever tried to include graphs or infographics in your blog? If you have, you’ll be well aware of the stilted nature of the task, and the unappealing bitmap-based finished product. In other words, it isn’t pretty.

That’s why I’m excited about the concept behind Silk, a new hosted CMS which has information, graphs and infographics at its heart. But is it the platform to start a data-driven trend in citizen web publishing?

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Concept

Silk really isn’t like any system I’ve tried before; not in the sense of design or operation, but in terms of concept. In essence, Silk sites are blogs, but the focus here is on the sharing of information, particularly in visualized forms, rather than the purely textual kind of site you might build with WordPress or Blogger.

After creating your first site, a process which simply requires the choosing of a Silk sub-domain, you can start creating Collections and Pages — for these, read “categories” and “posts” — from within your understated dashboard. So far, so blog-like.

Silk has the outward appearance of a mainstream CMS.

Silk has the outward appearance of a mainstream CMS.

The blog theme continues when it comes to user management. You can invite members to your site by email, and assign them different roles. Admins can access everything, Editors may manage Pages, and if you set up your site to be private, you can also invite Viewers to be inactive spectators.

Data

It is, however, Silk’s unique method of data management which separates it from the competition.

Each Page you create is based around Facts, which are themselves attached to Tags. I realize this is all a bit cryptic — let me clarify things with an example.

Imagine I create a Page about my favourite record shop. Along with images of the premises and any text I would want to write about it, I would also want to include information about the shop’s location and opening hours. In order to do so, I would create Tags named “location” and “opening hours”, and I would assign to them the appropriate values, or Facts (e.g. “Houston, Texas” and “10am-5pm”). If I create other Pages in the same Collection, Silk will offer to include the location and opening hours tags within the new Page, thereby creating a sort of data template.

Here, "Population" is a Tag, and "117,773" is the associated Fact.

Here, “Population” is a Tag, and “117,773” is the associated Fact.

In total, this means that Collections of Pages can be used as databases of information, with each entry being presented in a blog-like form. It’s a remarkable, if initially bewildering, hybrid format.

Other Options

Thankfully, you don’t necessarily have to put all of this information in by hand.

In the Dashboard area, Silk offers CSV uploading, as well as a bookmarklet, which allows you to capture anything interesting you stumble upon as you browse the web.

Number Blogging

In most respects, the Page composition interface returns to the world of blogging, appearing to be little different from any other sleekly-styled CMS.

The composition area returns to the realms of blogging.

The composition area returns to the realms of blogging.

After naming your new Page, you can add a featured image, before beginning to draft your story or report. A decent range of text formatting options lines the top of the interface, and each Page automatically begins with the key Facts you’ve entered. After this, though, you can freestyle to your heart’s content by inserting various forms of media.

Numerous forms of media, and many are number-related.

Numerous forms of media, and many are number-related.

Aside from text, images, and remotely hosted media files of any variety, a pretty comprehensive list of graphs awaits you: tables, data lists, column charts, bar charts, line graphs, pie charts, maps and grids.

It’s a system that is in equal measure simple to operate, yet very deep in terms of its capacity for detail.

Presentation

Finished Collections and Pages are displayed in a design which is very reminiscent of the default WordPress theme. It’s white, it has a sidebar, and it just feels…Wordpressy. Not that such a clean, uncluttered layout is a bad thing, you understand — quite the opposite.

Every Silk site looks like this – but it doesn't matter.

The design of every Silk site is virtually identical.

The title text can be changed, and a header image included, but it’s a shame that more visual customization isn’t available. I sense, though, that in Silk, the numbers will always take precedence. Given the system’s aims, that’s a perfectly reasonable stance to take.

With this in mind, the most important element of Silk’s presentation is its visualizations. Each of these is presented nicely. But most importantly, they are all interactive, some providing extra detail via explanatory tooltips, with others merely requiring a click of the mouse or a turn of the scroll-wheel.

Silk's graphs and infographics are both beautiful, and interactive.

Silk’s graphs and infographics are both beautiful, and interactive.

In the right hands, though, (see The Guardian’s Silk site, for instance) the lack of visual difference between one Silk page and another just blends away, such is the compelling nature of the facts on display.

What’s more, you can embed the graphs you create in Silk, wherever on the web you please — a killer feature which I feel may be key to Silk’s future.

Verdict

The undoubtable newness of Silk is exciting. This is a platform that is approaching web publishing from a previously untried angle, and it’s a much needed angle, too. The system of Tags and Facts is a brilliant innovation, and the ease with which you can create compelling data-driven reports in this CMS is astounding.

Silk does still have some work to do, though. It currently provides everything the amateur database creator or data-journalist needs, but it is hard to see how it can currently be of use to creative professionals — although the privacy options do make it usable as a pretty in-house database maker. I also wish Silk offered the ability to customize the design of your sites.

However, I make these criticisms in the full knowledge that Silk is heading somewhere big. Whether it will end up as the Visual.ly of data-journalism, or as a revolution in corporate number wrangling, I can’t predict. But a product that has quite this level of freshly-picked originality, and is quite this beautifully constructed, is surely destined for greatness.


Summary

A beautifully built platform, which provides a revolutionary new way of creating data-based reports. Just needs more design flexibility.

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