Back to the future at #nicar12

Going to the IRE-NICAR conference is like traveling to the future for me. Not only because I advance my skills in computer-assisted reporting, but also because I always learn things that I would have never dreamed even existed.

Put sci-fi movies aside – who would have thought that computers could write neat and tight copy? In the talk ‘Automation and free text,’ Reg Chua, Editor of Data and Innovation at Thomson Reuters, showed some cutting-edge tools like Narrative Science or Yseop, which can do exactly that. Check out the slogan for the latter: “the only software suite that writes intelligent texts just like a human being, but at a rate of over a thousand pages per second.” Scary.

Sure thing, these programs cannot write like Shakespeare, but Chua recommended them for automatic tasks – such as writing sport scores or even stock information. Like that, reporters can focus on more ‘complicated’ issues – such as investigative journalism.

On the other side of the table was Jonathan Stray, Interactive Technology Editor of competing news agency Associated Press. He’s working the process the other way around, converting thousands of documents into data. Stray was one of the winners of last year’s Knight News Challenge and presented his open source tool, Overview. He recently published a story on Iraq security contractors after analyzing 4,500 recently declassified documents with it.

And then, there’s Ben Welsh, from the Los Angeles Times, and formerly with The Center for Public Integrity, who surprised me with his ‘Human-assisted reporting’ concept. Instead of crunching the crime reports he gets every day from the police, Welsh has his computer do it for him automatically. What he gets back are a series of answers, such as the highest fines, and then, he can start reporting without being exhausted at all!

I wrote this post spending some time and effort, but maybe in a few years, my computer would be able to write it by itself. May I start training it?

View the presentations of most #nicar12 participants and tutorials for more inspiration.

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