Data journalism, robots … and predictions on where we go from here

 

No.09

At Google’s latest Digital News Initiative conference, held in Amsterdam last week, there were plenty of ideas being discussed around what the future of news looked like.

The DNI involves Google investing millions of pounds in projects put forward by media organisations large and small from across Europe, which could help shape the future of the media and support the development of journalism in the years to come.

Britain’s Press Association was one of the biggest winners this time, securing over 700,000 Euros to fund a new news service which will generate 30,000 local news stories a month sourced from data … and written by ‘robots’.

A team of five journalists will spot stories in data sets and then use artificial intelligence to create potentially hundreds of versions for different locations – hence the notion of robots.

AI-powered (Artifical Intelligence) journalism has been bubbling for a number of years. In America, Chicago Tribune publisher Tronc plans to use AI to auto-generate up to 2,000 videos a day to support stories, news agency AP has increased its volume of earnings reports from business announcements by 10-fold using AI (with the firm saying there are fewer errors than when humans did them)and the same company is now using AI to write minor baseball league reports.

At the Washington Post, ‘robots’ are deployed to write results of some elections, and also for sport. At the LA Times, a bot automatically sends out alerts whenever an earthquake is recorded – an inadvertently alarmed people about an earthquake predication for 2025 after a bug entered the system which powered the data the LA Times relies on.

So are we at a tipping point where technology now replaces reporters in newsrooms up and down the UK? I don’t think so – especially if we embrace their potential. Here’s why:

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Making the global local: Applying data journalism to bring stories closer to home

There has been a lot of coverage of the anniversary of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Long argued to have been the event which brought about the end for the Second World War, but also an event which killed tens of thousands of innocent people.

The Guardian’s look back at how the ‘Manchester Guardian’ as it was then covered the event provided a useful reminder that hindsight often packages up events in a way it isn’t possible to when details are still emerging. 

But the article which stood out to me was this one from the Indianapolis Star:

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Data Journalism: If a picture is worth 1,000 words, how many is a good data visualisation worth?

Like most developments in journalism, there are those who still prefer to sneer or snark about data journalism.

But there’s no denying that a) it’s here to stay and b) it’s an incredibly valuable tool which every newsroom should seek to invest effort into.

This week brought news of the latest local government finance settlement. The government’s spin was simple: Local government spending accounts for 25% of all public sector spending, so local government must takes its share of the pain. But, said the government, it would ensure those areas with the greatest pressures would get the most support. The key stat from Government was that budgets (it prefers to say spending power) would fall by around 1.6% on average.

The key word there, is average.

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The three parts required for the whole story (infographic)

datafoiThis morning on Five Live Investigates – arguably one of the most under-rated shows dedicated to investigative journalism around – I had a bit of an epiphany.  The result of that epiphany is the infographic I’ve tried to create above (click on it to see a larger version).

On today’s show, presenter Adrian Goldberg covered the issue of ambulance response times. Now the rules around ambulance response times are common knowledge in newsrooms: You have Category A calls, the most life-threatening, which should see a paramedic with you within 8 minutes (the target is that 75% of such calls should have a response within eight minutes). Continue reading

2 stories, 126 years apart: Why data should be at the heart of every newsroom

Last year, the Accrington Observer, a weekly newspaper in the town which has long since tired of hearing the old milk advert references, marked it’s 125th anniversary by republishing it’s very first newspaper:

accyobIt makes for a fascinating read – both in terms of what the founders of the paper thought would interest their readers, as well as what life was like in a mill town during its boom years – but one thing stood out for me more than anything else.

Tucked away on the back page was this:

observer2Taking up a good chunk of the back page was a detailed timetable for train services in and around Accrington. (For anyone who knows how poor the train services around Accrington are now, it’s a timetable to behold). What I don’t know is whether they published this data every week. I suppose the train timetable in 1890-something was to local folk what the chemist rotas were in the 1990s – information which was useful, but generally not available in too many other places.

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Proof that understanding how to bring a story to life is essential for data journalism

The Journal, Newcastle

I’m sure we’ve all seen stories about the rising number of children living in poverty. One of the challenges for regional newspapers is to make a story like this compelling – after all, it’s an issue which many might sympathise with, but may not want to read about. That’s why I think this front page from the Journal in Newcastle is so great … it makes a hard-hitting issue a compelling purchase because it cuts past the numbers to what it really means for those involved.

For data journalists, or journalists who use data to underpin stories, it’s a great example of how data is the start of the story…

 

 

 

 

Top 10 most read journalism posts of 2011 on this blog

When I first started this blog, I was determined that it wouldn’t just be my opinion on stuff, or rants about stuff, either. I’m not sure how well I’ve done in achieving that aim – but going through the most read posts of 2011 (I’ve done a separate list of FOI posts here):

Manchester Evening News front page1. Is this the most jaw-dropping CCTV still ever?

Do you remember the days when a police call which involved a promise of CCTV was pretty much always guaranteed to end up with a long battle with technology or a trip to the cop shop to pick up a grainy image which had more in common with Magic Eye pictures than it did with 20:20 sharp focus?

Friday’s first edition front page of the Manchester Evening News carries what I think is probably the most striking, and shocking CCTV still I’ve ever seen on a newspaper.

2. 10 Social Network search engines for journalists

Google Realtime, the search engine which was intended to integrate social network updates into Google, has been suspended, the company announced at the weekend.

Whether it returns at all remains to be seen – in my opinion, it’s the sort of tool Google can’t afford to be without.

It was a very useful tool for journalists too, especially as the ‘say what you see’ culture on Twitter exploded, providing excellent first-hand accounts and sources for reporters, especially local ones.

But there are plenty of other social network search engines worth checking out. Here are 10 of the best.

3. Council spending data: 10 tips for journalists looking for stories

Today marks the deadline for councils to start publishing details of all spending over £500. Local government minister Eric Pickles says he expects all councils to be as open as possible. Some, such as Liverpool, have admitted they’ll miss that deadline, and final details of exactly how all councils should produce the information has yet to be issued.

So how should journalists deal with the data? Here are ten points which I hope might help…

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