On March 20 and 21 the Immersive Automation project arranged its first training for journalists. During two intensive days of lectures and discussions the participants were given an introduction to computational thinking and the applications of it in a newsroom setting. Among the guest lecturers was assistant professor Nick Diakopoulos from the University of Maryland, who is a leading scholar in algorithmic accountability and social computing in the news.
Nick Diakopoulos defines computational thinking as a praxis about data, modelling, simulation, and programming into journalistic norms, goals, and epistemology.
“Essentially it’s about finding and telling news stories, with, by, or about algorithms,” he says.
He is very clear about the fact that computational thinking does not mean that we should think like computers.
“Instead it’s about thinking in a way so that we can use our computers in the best way possible to solve a problem.”
And why do we need computational thinking in news automation?
“Because computational thinkers will be more effective at exploiting the capabilities of automation.”
He compares an automated writing pipeline to the process of baking a cake; you have the algorithms and the parameters. The algorithm is like the recipe for the cake and the parameters are the ingredients, which can be altered and changed according to our wishes and needs.
“We have the basic recipe and if we for example want to make a vegan version of the cake, we just simply substitute a few of the ingredients.”
Computational thinking does not mean that we should think like computers.
Diakopoulos also led a workshop on bots, as they can be excellent at serving niche audiences and the costs of creating a bot are low. Some of the partnering media houses are also working on bots in their newsrooms and as such the topic was very current for the participants.
The participants also got to meet Valtteri, an election news bot, and the first prototype of the Immersive Automation project. The bot is currently training with data from the 2012 municipal elections in Finland so it will be ready for action on April 9. Data analysts Myriam Munezero and Leo Leppänen, who are members of the IA-research team, are the brains behind Valtteri. The rest of the research team has contributed to the creation process by considering news angles, writing templates, and analysing the linguistic capabilities of the bot.
You can follow Nick Diakopoulos on Twitter.
The Valtteri bot will be released soon.