How NTB utilised news automation in its election reporting

In May, the Immersive Automation project met up with Magnus Aabech from the Norwegian news agency NTB. Aabech is involved in NTB’s election bot project and talked to us about the experiences he has had so far with news automation. After the parliamentary elections in Norway, Aabech also shared some of NTB’s experiences with automated election reporting.

Magnus Aabech works as a News Developer at the Norwegian news agency NTB.

The Norwegian news agency (NTB) has previously focused on automating sports news, mainly football, but during the parliamentary elections in September 2017, the agency also used a simple bot in order to produce partially automated election news. The agency had a channel on Slack, which alerted the reporters when some type of changes occurred in the results. The bot would also produce a news text about the changes. The responsible reporter would then determine whether the changes were worth publishing.
“Just like the Immersive Automation project, we also work with text templates. However, our system is not really using NLG,” Aabech explains.

“We have received a lot of attention within the industry, which is always a plus”

The NTB focused on three main templates, which were then tailored. All in all, the bot consisted of almost 7 000 lines of JavaScript code.
“This could surely have been done in a shorter format, but my colleague and I are not that experienced in writing code,” Aabech says and laughs a little.

The election bot was created in-house, and the work involved three or four employees. One of the reporters worked full time on the bot for two months, while the others were involved part-time in addition to their regular tasks.

Aabech describes the experience as a positive one.
“The election bot provided us with plenty of valuable information, and it also illustrated to a lot of the NTB’s employees what can actually be done by news automation. Although the bot was a success in a lot of ways, we still experienced some technical difficulties in the beginning. Fortunately, we managed to solve them.”

For the NTB the most important thing was to develop the skills of the employees as well as prepare for the Norwegian municipal elections in 2019.
“And, of course, we were happy about the quality of the texts and how well the bot worked. In addition, we have received a lot of attention within the industry, which is always a plus.”

“The election bot provided us with plenty of valuable information, and it also illustrated to a lot of the NTB’s employees what can actually be done by news automation.”

Developing systems for news automation is expensive, and as such Aabech was interested in knowing more about the ways in which our project has attempted to create a re-usable system of the Valtteri election bot.
“Projects like these can be expensive. Automation is also something that I work with on top of my regular tasks, so the progress is quite slow.”

We compared the structures, and what makes Valtteri so special, is that instead of just making one big black box, the IA-project has created a chain of smaller black boxes, and as such can alter each individual box instead of starting from scratch and building a completely new system.

While the IA-project aims at producing news, which can be published directly for the audience to read, the NTB decided to proofread the automatically produced election texts before they went out on the NTB’s newswire.
“This was a type of pilot project, but in the future we will send out the automatically produced texts directly. That is also what we do with our football texts,” Aabech says.

EDIT:
In the original text we wrote that the NTB proof reads all of its automatically produced texts. This was only the case with the election reporting. 

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