06
Mar 17

Dear Google, your algorithm went walkabout

In the past couple of years Google has moved more and more openly into creating editorial content, albeit material assembled by computers and not by people. One algorithm experiment in this line reveals a terrible muddle about truth.

The version of machine-created material most often seen in a Google search is the box which flips up on the right hand side of a screen to summarise what Google knows about the main subject of a search. I asked Google for the nearest branch of the restaurant chain Wahaca to my home in London:

For this kind of search, such panels work just fine. I get links to Wahaca locations on the left and a summary of the things I’m most likely to want to know about Wahaca neatly laid out on the right. This is the sort of thing that search does well with what the early pioneers of online called ‘ease of do’. Exact factual information, in a split second.

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03
Jun 13

A new trick for old dogs and reporters using Twitter

Or at least it was new to me when I heard this yesterday. News reporters in “legacy” media who are besieged by predictions that technology is eating their livelihood can be forgiven for being sceptical about techno-hype which lauds new gizmos for being ingenious without actually asking if they do anything useful.

Here’s a smartphone app that might help solve a problem which has been faced by anyone who has ever been parachuted into an unfamiliar area on a breaking story. How do you find people with knowledgeable opinions on the event/issue/disaster, and find them quickly?

I heard about this at the World Editors Forum from Justin Arenstein, who instanced the use of layar.com to find quotable people with the example of reporters arriving in a small South African town to report the failure of the local authority to keep the public water supply flowing. Layar, a Dutch startup which is in the “augmented reality” (or AR) business, overlays extra information on what your smartphone sees and is often used by travellers to discover more information about, say, a building. The bit that caught my attention is called “Tweeps Around”.

With the app turned on, you can walk down the street or scan a room and your phone will find people who have been tweeting. It will, Justin said, locate the phone of the tweeter within a distance of three or four feet – easily accurate enough for a knock on the door and request for an opinion. The sending of a Twitter message in the first place, a public act, eliminates any concern that they’re going to object to at least being asked to expand on their tweet.

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05
Nov 12

Google and the difference between information and knowledge

I am a regular reader of Frederic Filloux’s weekly commentary on media, The Monday Note. I cannot recommend it too highly for its trenchant originality.

Triggered by a new wave of complaint about Google in Europe, today’s note looks at Google’s interest in legacy news media. Why, Filloux asks, has Google maintained Google News for so long when it makes no money and when news sites are so relatively insignificant as sources in Google’s gigantic search business?

He thinks that the answer lies in Google’s planned move from being a search engine to being a knowledge engine: the ability to deliver more sophisticated and useful answers than most of us can dream automated search can now deliver. At the heart of that effort is something called Knowledge Graph. And the key to that is the boring-but-important issue of the structure of data. News media connect bits of information to make it knowledge people may want and need.

As Filloux points out, pure-play web news sites are often better at this than the ones built by established mainstream media – despite the fact that the legacy media often hold richer, bigger databases. New media’s data is easier to find because what is stored is better labelled and can be made sense more easily.

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27
Sep 11

Small Google News blogpost: big development

This post on the Google News blog has not had the attention I think it deserves. It’s a small item with large implications.

At first sight the note simply sets down an announcement that a Google team made at the recent Online News Association conference. News publishers can now “tag” (or flag) journalism which they think is particularly special or “standout”. There’s limit to the number of times they can do this with their own content (seven times in a week) but no limit to the frequency with they can bestow the accolade on someone else’s content.

Google News has been wrestling for years with a dilemma which gets worse as the mountain of unsorted online information grows higher and higher. How do you find the information which is of the highest value to you? Google’s most basic algorithm, the foundation of the firm’s fortune, ranks links by the number of connections any given item has. The more links, the higher the place in the list Google returns. But that is a crude sorting mechanism which has long been open to gaming and manipulation.

Google News is plainly very keen to avoid any suggestion that they are choosing between news outlets, despite the fact that its engineers have been tinkering for years with ideas about ranking and sorting journalism for “quality”. It’s a minefield, for obvious reasons. But news is increasingly swapped in social networks. Can Google get involved (especially to help their own new Google+) while staying out of the judgement business? This commentator from TechCrunch thinks not (but note the disagreements in the comments).

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26
Jul 11

Phone-hacking, politics and Pharisees

I’ll return to the debate about press regulation after phone-hacking later this week. In the meantime three nuggets worth passing on.

In a media feeding frenzy such as the phone-hacking affair, instant reaction overrules reflection. Just when you think you can read no more, along comes a piece so detached and so sharp that it feels like a cool drink.

This is such a piece, written by a writer who mostly works as a film critic: Anthony Lane of the New Yorker. He skillfully shows that the roots of the corruption in tabloid newsrooms are long and deep; competition and economic pressure have made things worse, but are not the only cause. Lane also places phone-hacking in the wider frame of British media and culture, deftly suggesting that some current media analysis smells faintly of hypocrisy. Of all the descriptions of this affair and the attempts to understand its significance, this one deserves to last.

Among both journalists and politicians, self-criticism is in short supply in these days. Which is what makes this article by Jonathan Powell so notable. Powell worked at Tony Blair’s side for more than a decade and was in an excellent position to see the ex-Prime Minister’s dealings with the media tycoons in general and with Rupert Murdoch in particular. Powell could easily have written a piece without directing any fire at himself or his boss. But he passed up that easy option. And whether or not one might agree with his prescriptions, his diagnosis is accurate: “The root cause of the problem is press unaccountability.”

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05
Jul 11

Phone-hacking goes platinum

I’m not surprised that David Cameron has abandoned his non-committal language about phone-hacking by newspaper reporters. The moment yesterday when the story broke that reporters on the News of the World had hacked into the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler and, by deleting message in the phone’s mailbox, have given her parents and police the false hope that she was still alive marks a watershed in the miserable saga of phone interception by journalists. This is more than “a new low”.

Yesterday was the last possible moment that anyone could, with a straight face, claim that this was a limited infraction with minor consequences being blown out of proportion. Until yesterday the story was of huge interest to journalists, policemen and MPs. The drip-drip revelations in The Guardian were not only intriguing, they were significant. But they hadn’t grabbed any really widespread attention.

Campaigners on the issue claimed that this was because major news media managed to mostly ignore the subject; some editors were presumed to be nervous about possible revelations in their own newsroom. This may have been a factor, but the basic explanation was much simpler. To be a marmalade-dropper, a story needs – among other things – an element of surprise, an assumption upended. Stories which showed that red-top reporters behaved badly and broke the law don’t upset anyone’s picture of the world. And into the bargain, the victims of phone-hacking were celebrities. Most people ration their sympathy where red-carpet people are concerned.

Not so the bereaved and much-abused Dowler family. That reporters seem to have been so cruelly indifferent to a family whose 13-year-old daughter had gone missing moves the story into new, mass territory. The essence of the story is emotive and straightforward to grasp and convey. This will be true in spades if it turns out that anyone in the families of the Soham murder victims was treated in the same way.

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