How The Guardian created its first article written by a robot

On February 1, The Guardian Australia posted its first article created solely by a robot. Mumbrella's Zoe Samios chats to the publication's data and interactives editor, and founder of ReporterMate, Nick Evershed, to understand how it works and the opportunities for automated journalism in future.

If a reader were to flick through Guardian Australia’s website in the last few weeks, they might have noticed a story sitting under the byline, ReporterMate.

It isn’t a glitch. On February 1, the publication launched its first automated story using a robot, otherwise known as ReporterMate. Time pressure can be a journalist’s worst enemy, particularly when there’s a stack of data to churn through.

The ReporterMate platform, which can be used by anyone

But with the new automation tool put together by Guardian Australia’s data and interactives editor, Nick Evershed, it could all become a lot easier to report statistics like: ‘yesterday was the 13th hottest day in February to date’.

The journalist, who spends a lot of his own time sifting through data and creating stories, found he was writing similar stories around issues in politics and carbon emissions data every few months. When he realised how similar the stories were, he began running programming analysis.

“Instead of doing the analysis by hand every time in Xcel, I switched to doing it via a programming language and saving the script that did the analysis and then just re-using it the next time I had to do that story,” he tells Mumbrella.

When The Walkley’s Editors Lab 2016 came around, he decided it was time to build out the tool. He won the 2016 Walkley Innovation Grant, and set off to work.

It wasn’t an original idea. A number of companies overseas including Narrative Science and Automated Insights had this underway, and Evershed often uses the LA Times’ Quakebot as an example. But he felt it was important for news media to control how the technology was used.

Here is what Evershed wrote in early 2017: “Here’s an idea – when the labour new unemployment figures come out from the ABS, what if you had a program that could automatically get the data, compare it with historical data, and then give you three or four pars on what’s changed and how? This would free up the newsroom to do more on the story, like putting the figures in context with global conditions and government policy, or putting a human face on the figures.

“My plan is to build a system that can automate the analysis, writing, and production of graphics for these formulaic stories. Data in, news story out.

“If the news media want to control how technology like this is used and how it affects their industry, it’s far better to construct an open-source system that can be used by any media organisation.”

In 2018, a story about political donations now sits on The Guardian Australia website, written by ReporterMate. The story breaks down donations received by major political parties in Australia.

Evershed says the process of making a story like this is simple.

“You have a dataset – it’s like a spreadsheet essentially – or a Google Doc – and then you have a story template; that’s the minimum two things that you need. Then you run the program from the command line and it produces the story.

“It’s fairly simple at the moment. It doesn’t go straight onto the website, it just produces the copy and then I pick up that copy and give it to our production people and subs,” he explains.

Evershed believes he would have found the project a lot harder if he didn’t have previous experience working with automated tools. The hardest bit for him is more about the difficulty with design type-phase.”

Currently, journalists wishing to use the platform would probably require programming experience, like Evershed. But with interest in the tool being picked up elsewhere, he may re-visit the design, to make it easier for those without programming backgrounds to use it.

“There was originally an intention to turn it into a website to make producing the story templates a lot easier for people who don’t have programming knowledge, but for me it was not necessary to get it working in production, so I just kept putting it off,” he says.

Nick Evershed wanted to create efficiency in the newsroom

“But I think there’s a bit of interest from our office in the UK as well, so maybe we’ll pick it up again and see if can produce something regular people can actually use.”

The platform has an open-sourced licence, meaning any news publication can use the tool for free. He doesn’t see it being used to create entire stories. Rather, it’s about generating interesting statistics and records to build out a story.

But Evershed has never seen the tool replacing journalism. He sees it as complementary: a time-saver which can boost efficiency and accuracy in stories.


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