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



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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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…





DATA: Where are we?

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the Futureeverything conference in Manchester about data journalism. I was on a panel with three people who are been right at the forefront of datajournalism, which rather begged the question as to what I could add. Those three were Paul BradshawChris Taggart who founded Openlylocal (and someone every journalist needs to thank) and the Guardian’s Martin Belam.

So, in my five minute slot, I decided to try and look at what we’ve learnt about journalism in the regional press so far.  The key themes were:

  • Data journalism isn’t a fad. The tools might be new, and the volume of data might be new, but data journalism isn’t new.
  • Data journalism isn’t easy journalism. It isn’t about just taking data and making a map. It only works when journalists ask the question: ‘How do I make this interesting and useful to readers?’
  • Data journalism shouldn’t be a passive process of interpreting datas other choose to release – we need to be asking for data  (FOI here!)
  • Context is key. Data for data’s sake makes no sense for readers.

Here’s the speech, if that isn’t too grand a phrase:

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“Actionable news”: A dull phrase, but one which should shape what we do

If you were presented with the following three news stories: The promotion of Newcastle United to the Premier League, the death of Raoul Moat after a week on the run, or a story which revealed which restaurants were Newcastle’s dirtiest – which would you expect to be the most viewed online this year?

In the case of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle website, ChronicleLive, it’s the latter of the three. Looking at the top stories for the Chronicle so far this year, the restaurants tale comfortably beats any one of the stories written about Newcastle United’s glorious end to the season or the police chase for Moat.

It’s worth pointing out at this point that collectively, the stories written in the week Moat was on the run will have generated more traffic than the single story on dirty restaurants, but none individually matched the restaurants story. Ditto the Newcastle United promotion.

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