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Knight Center

JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Journalist uses algorithm to gather earthquake data and write reports in minutes



When a 4.4 magnitude earthquake shook California on Monday, March 17, the first reporter to cover the news was a data-gathering algorithm designed by Los Angeles Times journalist and programmer Ken Schwencke, according to the web magazine Slate.

Quakebot, as the algorithm is called, was developed by Schwencke more than two years ago to gather data from newsworthy U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) alerts and input it into pre-written news templates. The preliminary story is then stored in the newspaper’s content management system while an alert is emailed to a human editor, who will proofread the story and decide whether to publish it online.

When Quakebot received a USGS alert signaling a 3.0 or greater magnitude earthquake (anything less is probably minimal) at 6:25 a.m. PST, it sent an email to Schwencke who then published an initial report within a few minutes, making the Los Angeles Times the first newspaper to report on the story.

Ken Schwencke, journalist and programmer at the Los Angeles Times. Photo via Hacks and Hackers Meetup.com page.

According to Schwencke, the bot’s goal is not to write an elaborate article but to communicate accurate information as quickly as possible. Human journalists can then do their usual jobs and flesh out the story, interviewing sources and gathering additional information that only a human being can determine is newsworthy. By noon on Monday, the original post on the newspaper’s website had already been updated 71 times by human journalists, according to Schwencke, resulting in a much more complex news story.

The newspaper’s data team modeled Quakebot on a previous algorithm that gathers data on local homicides and communicates it to human reporters. According to Schwencke, algorithm-enhanced journalism is not a threat to human journalists, but a useful supplement.

“It saves people a lot of time, and for certain types of stories, it gets the information out there in usually about as good a way as anybody else would,” he told Slate. “The way I see it is, it doesn’t eliminate anybody’s job as much as it makes everybody’s job more interesting.”

According to Ben Welsh, a database producer at the Los Angeles Times, algorithms can help journalists find the news and report it by asking and answering the basic questions any human reporter would, he told the website Journalism.co.uk.

Another publication that uses bots to write stories is Forbes.com, which employs algorithms developed by the company Narrative Science to write automatic financial notifications on their website.

Bots are useful tools when covering data-centric stories, such as sports results or monthly employment numbers, but as of yet only a few large news companies use them, according to the website The Wire.

For Forbes contributor Ryan Calo, the use of algorithm-created content is a sign of reliance on emergence, the idea of using “low level rules” to carry out “tasks of apparently high sophistication.”

Calo said algorithms could lead to unexpected challenges, using the hypothetical example of a bot covering arrests that mistakenly says a politician was arrested when he or she was not. Could the politician sue the bot’s creator for defamation? He also mentioned a real example where two algorithms started a bidding war on Amazon.com that resulted in a $23.6 million dollar book listing.

“The prospect of robots and software capable of replicating human behavior with inhuman speed will be irresistible,” Calo said. “The law […] will just have to adapt.”

Bots and other cutting-edge tools used by innovative journalists today will be the topic of a discussion panel at the 15th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), titled “Bots, drones, sensors, wearables, etc.: The new tools for journalists.” ISOJ will take place on April 4 and 5 at the University of Texas at Austin. Click here to register



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