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Robocop patrolling the journalism streets

Posted on March 26, 2014 by Taber Times

The robots are coming to a news outlet near you.

This past week I shocked and horrified the boys in the editorial department at The Taber Times when I stumbled across a story involving a ‘robot’ which was writing for the Los Angeles Times.

Now, I know everyone out there in readership-land already thinks the reporters around here are super-awesome robots who transform into data entry machines at will, and that we spend most of our time drinking coffee and doing battle with evil ‘Communicons’ from the P.R. sector over the souls of humanity in the name of our democratic right to truth and justice.

And you are totally right. We do spend most of our time doing that. But we also get out there and gather stories on occasion.

Ken Schwencke, digital editor, reporter, and programmer for the Times’ data desk, took this little 80s cartoon-fuelled fantasy of mine to a whole new level when he developed an algorithm he calls “Quakebot.”

Schwencke told Poynter.org journalist Andrew Beaujon that work on Quakebot began after the 2011 earthquake in Japan.

He said he began playing with the data feeds sent out from the U.S. Geological Survey. Those e-mails contain pertinent information on seismic activity in the area, and Los Angeles is prime earthquake real estate.

Quakebot can write a story based on details of seismic events with a “newsworthy magnitude,” put a post into the Times’ CMS (content management system), generate an image based off Bing maps, and then alert copy editors that the story is ready to go. Quakebot will also share USGS revisions to the event, such as downgrades or misreadings.

Schwencke said the stories are a good starting point for journalists to dig into, adding their own content after the basic facts have already been added. Or they can just run the story as a standalone piece.

Amazingly, the story was posted to the L.A. Times site just three minutes after the earthquake happened.

Here is the story Quakebot wrote, which appeared in the L.A. Times online on March 10:

“A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles from Westwood, California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6:25 a.m. Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles.

“According to the USGS, the epicenter was six miles from Beverly Hills, California, seven miles from Universal City, California, seven miles from Santa Monica, California and 348 miles from Sacramento, California. In the past ten days, there have been no earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and greater centered nearby.

“This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.

“Read more about Southern California earthquakes.”

The L.A. Times wasn’t hiding the fact they had a robo-journalist on staff, as the story came with a note saying the information was provided by the USGS notification service and the post was “created by an algorithm written by the author.”

Is it amazing, compelling reading? Not really. But it is a perfect example of robo-journalism.

It has all the stats and none of the flair you might expect to read from a human journalist. And some of the stats are kind of ridiculous, such as listing the earthquake being “348 miles from Sacramento.” As computers lack the necessary self-editing mechanism humans have which would exclude this as useless information, it simply published everything available according to its parameters. Were you to replace all the journalists in the world with software, you would probably be neck deep in these data-mined stories before your morning coffee everyday, and bored to tears to boot.

On the other hand, it was ready to go in three minutes.

This is where we are headed in our endless thirst for information. And I for one, welcome our new robot lead journalists with open arms. For one thing, I personally prefer reading the news to any other form of media. Why? Well, I can read it over and over again, if I want. I can refer back to it if needed. And I can directly quote it line by line should I need to use the information the story contains to win an argument.

Also, computers haven’t figured out how to turn themselves on. Yet. So I’m looking at a cushy job in my twilight years doing George Jetson-esque work where I arrive at my job in a flying car (which promptly folds down into a briefcase), push a button to wake up the machine so it can start churning out content, and then sleep until lunch. Good times, ahead, I know. And if Quakebot ever gives my bosses pause to think they could run the machine without me, well, I have a simple logic statement for ol’ Quakebot.

Clumsy fingers + hot coffee = no more Quakebot.

Yeah, He gets it.

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