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January 26 2012

Transforming data into narrative content

One of the largest by-products of the digital revolution is data, and entrepreneurs are finding new ways to harness and make use of the increasing variety of data. In the following interview, Kristian Hammond, CTO of Narrative Science, talks about how his company generates narrative stories from gathered data — a function that could play out very well in content organizations such as newspapers, allowing them to scale content without having to hire more staff.

Hammond says stories grounded in data work best — think sports stories, to start — and that the increasing amounts and kinds of data being produced create new opportunities for the kinds of stories that can be generated — think pharmaceutical testing reports. He will expand on the ideas and concepts behind using data to generate content in the Scaling Content Development Through Automation session at the upcoming Tools of Change for Publishing conference.

What does Narrative Science do and how are you applying the technology to journalism?

KristianHammondMug.pngKristian Hammond: Narrative Science is a Chicago-based company that is focused on the automatic generation of stories from data. Spun out of the schools of Engineering and Journalism at Northwestern University, we are currently working with customers (in both media and business), generating content from public and proprietary data sources.

We are generating stories in the arenas of sports, finance, real estate, and politics. We are also working with companies to transform business data into client reports, franchise statements, and customer communication. In effect, we are giving a voice to the insights that can be found in the growing world of big data.

Our aim is to provide content and insight in those areas where it is either financially or logistically impossible for organizations to generate it themselves using traditional methods.

How does data affect the structure of a story?

Kristian Hammond: Our stories are driven by data, but they are not simple recitations of that data. In doing an earning story, for example, having (or not having) historical data will change the scope of the story. In the former case, we will have year-to-year comparisons; in the latter we won't. In sports, seasonal data will allow us to give a voice to trends and rankings, and rivalry data will allow us to describe a game in terms of the impact of the game beyond the score and stats. In all of these cases, the greater the pool of data we have, the more powerful the story will be.

What kinds of stories lend themselves well to this type of system and why?

Kristian Hammond: The technology is designed around transforming data into stories. Stories that are themselves grounded in data are the perfect match for us. As more and more of the data that defines our world comes online, we see more and more opportunities to create new stories in new domains.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

What kinds of stories just won't work — what are the boundaries or limitations?

Kristian Hammond: Often, stories are the products of long-term observations, conversations and ongoing inquiries. A story in Vanity Fair that is the product of 30 conversations, for instance, is not something we would ever try to do. Also, stories that are more opinion based are outside our realm. But again, as more information is transformed into machine-readable data, there are more opportunities for us to use that data to expand our realm of possibility.

In what ways can publishers benefit from Narrative Science?

Kristian Hammond: Publishers who are resource bound or who want to expand the scope of their reporting are perfect clients for us. If a financial publisher is producing earning previews for 30 companies, for example, they can use this technology to generate exactly the same kind of story with the same tone and language for 1,000 companies. If a publisher wants to track real-time events and there is data around them, they can use us to generate everything from stock alerts to in-game quarterly summaries. Wherever there are problems of scope in terms of volume or the constraints of time, publishers can use us to create the stories they simply do not have the resources to write.

In what other industries are you finding applications for Narrative Science?

Kristian Hammond: While Narrative Science began its life providing content for media companies, it has expanded its reach to cover reporting for all types of organizations that have data describing their businesses and operations. We currently provide reporting for client services, tracking franchise operations, and performance reviews for a variety of companies. We are also looking at how our platform could be used to transform the huge data repositories captured in pharmaceutical clinical trials into clear and concise reports that provide overviews of and insights into their results.

In effect, anywhere there is data and a story to be told from it, our analytics and narrative generation platform can leverage that data into insight.

This interview was edited and condensed.


November 14 2011

Civic media competition attracts a new generation of change agents

Civic media and new systems of networked accountability are some of the most dynamic areas in communications right now. My sense is that we're going to see important new mobile platforms emerge around the globe that will connect us to one another in ways that we have yet to fully appreciate.

Over the past few years, it has seemed at times like the future of journalism was conferences featuring current or former media executives talking about how to keep newspapers alive or syndicate television to new devices. Thankfully, there's much more happening in the future of news than panels or essays defending institutions. We're living in a networked age, with the blessings and risks attendant to that connectivity.

I recently moderated two discussions between the finalists in the Ashoka Foundation's civic media Changemakers competition. The discussions, which spanned time zones and countries, were hosted using a Google Hangout. (While there were a couple bumps using a Hangout for this purpose, including some latency and jitter to limited bandwidth, the platform worked reasonably well.)

We were joined on the first Hangout by Esther Wojcicki from Creative Commons, who served as a judge for the competition. We talked with contestants about their work, what inspired them, what challenges they face in their work, and how current events in the Middle East and beyond are changing the civic media space.

I was excited to speak with these young innovators and I hope you enjoy learning about their projects, technologies and perspectives on civic media. Video of our talk is embedded below:

Projects in the Citizen Media Changemakers contest

The Citizen Media Changemakers contest, which will award $5,000 to four winners, is sponsored by Google. Finalists emerged from a pool of 426 entries submitted from 75 countries. Voting for the winners at closes on Nov. 23, 2011.

Regardless of who wins the contest, each of these projects is well worth learning more about. The young men and women — and they are all young — offered honest and perceptive observations about the role of civic media in the rapidly expanding global information ecosystem. I've embedded a playlist of short videos from each of the founders below:

Here are links to each project in the competition:

These interviews and projects are a reminder that new technologies and ideas are not only changing what's possible, but that smart, entrepreneurial young people are making those visions come alive, lifting up new voices and connecting humanity to the network of networks.

I'll embed the video of the second discussion here as soon as it becomes available. Their voices — and those they empower — deserve to be heard.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012 in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012


October 21 2011

Publishing News: The news is free but the API will cost you

Here are a few stories that caught my eye in the publishing space this week.

News orgs turn to data and shopping for new revenue streams

USATodayDeveloper.PNGTwo news organizations recently took out-of-the-box steps in the relentless pursuit of that illusive digital-era revenue. First, USA Today decided to dip its toe into the business of big data: the newspaper will now offer commercial licensing for its information. As noted in a Nieman Lab post this week, access to USA Today's APIs isn't new — but selling the access for commercial purposes is. In an interview, USA Today's Stephen Kurtz said the newspaper is feeling it out at this point to assess the demand and to hone a working model. Perhaps Kurtz should look to an example highlighted in the Nieman post: The Guardian's Open Platform.

Another news organization stepped into a more uncharted sales area this week: Politico is now in the bookstore business. Politico recently teamed with Random House to publish instant ebooks, and now the duo will sell the ebooks from a new online store dubbed Politico Bookshelf. Initially, this venture looked like a first step for one of the Big Six to delve into direct book sales, but the release on Politico's site indicates that it's really more of a browsing platform than a store: "Shoppers can browse or search for titles, and then purchase them through a selection of online retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Politics and Prose and Apple's iBookstore."

Amazon's foray into publishing continues to jolt the industry

The New York Times reported this week on Amazon's rapidly increasing reach into publishing: first it edged out bookstores, then it started launching imprints, and now it's wooing writers and "gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide." Examples of Amazon's gnawing were summed up in the post:

Amazon has started giving all authors, whether it publishes them or not, direct access to highly coveted Nielsen BookScan sales data, which records how many physical books they are selling in individual markets like Milwaukee or New Orleans. It is introducing the sort of one-on-one communication between authors and their fans that used to happen only on book tours. It made an obscure German historical novel a runaway best seller without a single professional reviewer weighing in.

And this doesn't even take the Kindle Fire and the ecosystem it's creating into account. The Atlantic took a look at the dangers of where this kind of one-stop-shop might lead, and over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram looked at Amazon's disruption and why its working. He also offered some sage advice for publishers: "Take a lesson from the music industry and don't spend all your time suing people for misusing what you believe is your content — think instead about why they are doing this, and what it says about how your business is changing, and then try to adapt to that."

Kobo's Vox takes on Amazon's Fire

Kobo stepped out ahead of Amazon this week and announced its new tablet, Vox, will start shipping Oct. 28 — a couple of weeks ahead of the Nov. 15 shipment date for Kindle Fire. Some argue that the Fire (and presumably similar low-priced tablets like Vox and Nook — there's a nice comparison of the three over at Dear Author) will lead to the demise of the iPad. What seems more likely is the impending obscurity of the dedicated ereading device. In a recent TOC Podcast interview, Max Franke of epubli talked about the German ebook market and pointed out that tablets were preferred over ereaders in that part of the world. Perhaps that trend will spread to this side of the pond as well.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012


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