This column is still written by a human

THE Agence France Presse (AFP) published an interesting article last week about the use of algorithms to write news articles.

The AFP article, which was written by a human, discussed how a group of new companies use algorithms or mathematical procedures run on computers to turn large volumes of numeric data into articles.

A pioneer in the industry is Narrative Science, which was spun off from a joint research project at the Northwestern University Schools of Engineering and Journalism. The company said its first “automatically generated story” was on a Northwestern Wildcats baseball game.

Narrative Science produces earnings previews for Forbes, turning public data on companies into news articles. Here’s a typical Narrative Science article:

“Analysts expect decreased profit for Gannett (GCI) when the company reports its second quarter results on Monday, July 16, 2012. Although Gannett reported profit of 58 cents a year ago, the consensus estimate calls for earnings per share of 53 cents.

Revenue has fallen in the past four quarters. Revenue declined 2.6% to $1.22 billion in first quarter. The figure fell 5.1% in the fourth quarter of the last fiscal year from the year earlier, dropped 3.5% in third quarter of the last fiscal year from the year-ago quarter and 2.2% in the second quarter of the last fiscal year.”

That news article was produced in less time than you could say “really?” and without a coffee or cigarette break.

Narrative Science also produces recaps of sports events for The Big Ten Network. Here’s a sample article:

“Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lift Kentucky to a 102-90 win over Indiana on Friday at Georgia Dome in Atlanta in the Sweet 16. Doron Lamb also had a good game for Kentucky (35-2), as he added 21 points, thee [Note: This actually appeared. It’s not a misspelling so the system may have missed it] rebounds and went 6-of-11 from the field. Hot shooting from both sides led to a full-fledged shootout.”

Should journalists worry over losing their jobs to cloud-based algorithmic content producers (utility writing, anyone?)?

Chief executive officer Stuart Frankel told The Atlantic in April, “If a story can be written by a machine from data, it’s going to be. It’s really just a matter of time at this point. But there are so many stories to be told that are not data-driven. That’s what journalists should focus on, right?”

Narrative Science can also turn analytical business data — from earnings reports, stock market data and even news articles – and turn out customized written reports.

The company can also produce personalized reports to students based on their test results. In his blog, chief technology officer Kris Hammond gave a sample report that the system can turn out based on a student’s test scores:

“Math seems to be your strongest area, but you are having particular problems with definite integrals. You should review Chapter 4 in the Math readings and rerun the exercises at the end of the chapter.”

The system can also crunch medical test results and tell people not only what’s ailing them but also give them advice on how to improve their health.

The availability of a reporting layer on top of data is an exciting and transformative field.

It isn’t far-fetched to think that this system will soon interface with personal assistant systems like Siri or the upcoming Google equivalent for Android. Google, which owns Android, is a company built on algorithms and can harness its algorithmic prowess to put up a similar but consumer-focused service.

The post This column is still written by a human appeared first on Leon Kilat : The Cybercafe Experiments.

Social media layer on ‘real life’

Last Saturday, several groups all over the world celebrated Social Media Day. In Cebu, members of the Cebu Bloggers Society Inc. gathered in Mactan Isla Resort and Spa for a seminar on various topics related to social media.

I talked about good writing as foundation of an effective social media campaign.

Despite advances in online video and availability of new, interactive story-telling tools, the Internet is still primarily a textual medium. If there’s one thing we should invest on to improve our social media skills, it should be to sharpen our writing.

That becomes even more important as social networks have replaced search engines as people’s primary portal to the Internet. Most articles written purely with search engine optimization (SEO) considerations do not connect well with readers and are not shared in social networks.

I shared with bloggers something that I have been always saying in my talks on online writing: Write for people, not algorithms because social networks are networks of people and not machines.

After the talk, I gave Cebu bloggers a demo on how Sun.Star Cebu is connecting its print edition to social media through mobile phones.

Through the scanning of quick response (QR) codes, readers are now able to vote on polls published on printed pages, using mobile phones. The same system will also allow readers to comment on the printed edition of this column piece.

FACEBOOK COMMENT FOR PRINT. You can comment on my article on the printed edition of Sun.Star Cebu using your phone, a QR code scanner and your Facebook profile.

FACEBOOK COMMENT FOR PRINT. You can comment on my article on the printed edition of Sun.Star Cebu using your phone, a QR code scanner and your Facebook profile. CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

As the technology progresses to allow us to put a digital information layer on “real life,” social media will increasingly be woven into the fabric of our lives. That is starting to happen today with a device that is increasingly becoming our main computer – the mobile phone. But in the coming years, it would be replaced by something wearable. We got a peek into that recently.

Last week, Google showed off its Project Glass wearable computer and announced Explorer Editions intended for developers. The project is a head mounted augmented reality display. The demos show people being able to see updates on the weather, calendar schedules and messages on the eyepiece.

Social networking can be an information layer on a device like the Project Glass. When you see someone, the system can immediately match their faces with social networks and pull their profile data from Google+, Facebook and Twitter. There is already an app that matches people’s faces with Facebook profiles (although it had a less than 50 percent success rate in my very short test.)

When you’re out looking for a place to eat, the system can display the ratings of restaurants or diners that you’re looking at. When you go to a hotel, it can display their ratings as well as reviews of previous guests.

But will all these information kill serendipity? What would life be without some mystery?

What would the impact be of having access to all these information the very first time you meet a person?

Information bubbles would pop up next to people with info like: “single,” “in a relationship with (name of person that is hyperlinked to his or her social network account)” or “it’s complicated.” What if the system serves you, as background information on the person you are having a business meeting with, a photo of her in skimpy bikini, this being the latest photo she uploaded to Facebook?

Creepy, right? But that is likely to happen within the next five years.

The post Social media layer on ‘real life’ appeared first on Leon Kilat : The Cybercafe Experiments.

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