Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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New McCormick program to use data to create journalism stories

For some, the idea of engineers and journalists working together is somewhat of a paradox.

McCormick Prof. Kristian Hammond thinks it’s perfectly natural. With the help of McCormick Prof. Larry Birnbaum and Stuart Frankel, a former member of the now Google-owned DoubleClick’s senior management team, Hammond founded a company based on journalism-engineering collaborations.

The company, Narrative Science, developed an application that generates journalism stories from data. The program formally launched in 2010 after two years of teamwork between Northwestern computer science and journalism students. Narrative Science’s first articles covered NU baseball and softball for the Big Ten Network. Since then, the application has expanded to include topics such as Little League Baseball and finance.

“We look for places where there’s a lot of data and people are interested in the story associated with that data, but there’s no one to tell that story,” Hammond said. “We really see stories as the bridge between numbers and knowing.”

To write a story, the application analyzes the data related to the topic and makes inferences to determine an angle. With a set angle, the system produces the article, including a lead, nut graf and headline. The program can also write stories to match the tone of specific publications, Hammond said.

Because of this capability, Hammond’s company has an advantage over other news wires such as the Associated Press, which only writes one version of a story and then distributes it.

“The Associated Press writes one story about an event and tries to syndicate it to 500 different outlets,” he said. “We can take that story and we can write 500 versions of it … we can create a product that will differentiate for the individual outlets.”

Hammond also said the company is working to convert more information such as quotes into machine-readable data; Narrative Science currently only uses quotes from CEOs in finance stories.

Despite its limitations, Hammond said there is a “tremendous hunger” for this technology because of its tailoring ability, speed and cost-efficiency compared to employing a human reporter.

Some journalists regard this type of program with caution.

Medill Prof. Eric Ferkenhoff, who has written for more than 20 years for publications such as the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe, said journalists should keep their appetite for this technology in check.

“I’m a gadget guy. I love technology, and I think that technology is a huge plus for the industry,” he said. “But you need humans to interpret and analyze and bring context to a story.”

He added reporters should use the application to supplement their own work and refrain from relying on a program to provide easy information.

Some students agree this technology would be no substitute for human reporters.

Medill sophomore Emily Rivest said she doubts the technology will become popular because it lacks a human element.

“You can’t program any personality or empathy or anything like that,” she said. “Even if they can program quotes and stuff … It wouldn’t sound natural if they started doing more than just straightforward, fact-based stories.”

Medill sophomore Lydia Belanger also emphasized the human element, but she said she predicted seeing the technology appear in newsrooms across the world.

“There’s a place for data and a place for human interview sources in every story,” she said.

Belanger’s prediction is what Hammond anticipates for his program in the future: a tool in every newsroom to enhance, not replace, the reporting of human journalists.

“We see this in the long run as being part of an overall collaborative system,” he said. “You’ll have your newsroom, and you’ll have your 20 reporters, and you’ll have your columnists, and you’ll have your opinion people, and then you’ll have Narrative Science. And each one will play its role.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
New McCormick program to use data to create journalism stories