Narrative Science – Closer to a True Robot Reporter?

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The New York Times recently published an in-depth article about Narrative Science, a fascinating startup founded by two computer scientists who are also journalism professors at Northwestern University, and a veteran executive from DoubleClick. Their product is a software engine that can, given a box score, a crime log, or a real estate transaction, generate a brief , well-written news article in the classic who-what-when-where-why canon. While not works of art, these articles are credible and often beat what human scribes have to offer.

I wrote about Narrative Science a back in June for Street Fight, contemplating whether its application would fuel a truly 100% automated hyperlocal paper. In the Times piece, we got some more tantalizing detail. A Y Combinator backed startup called Market Brief is now using Narrative Science to turn thousands of daily Securities and Exchange Commission filings into moderately readable, albeit grindingly bland briefs. (In all fairness to Narrative Science, consider the original source of the information.)This is very interesting. but also highlights a major weakness of Narrative Science as a hyperlocal news generator. The SEC articles are primarily about transactions. The Narrative Science news engine cannot make inferences or logical leaps—yet.

The articles don’t note that the executive who sold 100,000 shares of stock in his brother’s company did the same thing two months before the company reported bad earnings last year. Okay, I’m making that part up—but you get the idea. The computer could also write up transcripts of city council meetings, but could it pick out the news nuggets, the bombs hidden in the footnotes of the agenda that a human reporter might know to highlight?

Not yet, but it can allow reporters to focus on those nuggets rather than on the drudgery of turns-of-the-screw reporting that is important to put the public record in a more accessible and searchable formate. And I have confidence that the Narrative Science guys have a tricks up their sleeves still. So stay tuned.

Alex Salkever’s Personal Fight column appears every week on Street Fight.


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