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Google News Lab Mashes Big Data With Old-School Reporting

An ex-reporter leads Google’s project to merge its fire hose of video and data with traditional journalism to separate news from noise.

Google News Lab Mashes Big Data With Old-School Reporting

On July 8, Philadelphia police stopped 22-year-old Tyree Carroll on his bicycle and repeatedly beat him after he was already on the ground. More than a dozen officers eventually surrounded Carroll as he called for his grandmother, who lived nearby, for help. We know this because activist Jasmyne Cannick recorded the encounter on a phone and uploaded it to her YouTube channel.

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Google is no longer just a place to search for news stories; it’s a place to find raw news itself. Among the 432,000 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every day are user clips of important events–from police beatings to political uprisings–that no media crew was around to cover. Google’s trend analysis based on 3.5 billion daily searches can surface patterns in data that traditional reporting misses.

But there’s a lot of noise in the signal, and what rises to the top isn’t always the cream. “Algorithms alone aren’t enough to make YouTube and sites like it valuable. You need curation, you need journalism,” says Steve Grove, a Google executive and former reporter who realized a year ago that the search giant could do more to serve journalists. His idea grew into Google News Lab, a suite of tools for the media that the company formally announced last month.

On the surface, News Lab looks like a repackaging of existing Google services, such as Google Trends, YouTube, and Google Maps. “We…wanted to have a single door that the media could walk through,” says Grove. But News Lab adds human intel. “People who upload this (video) content aren’t journalists,” he says. “They may not even consider themselves citizen journalists. They don’t give context.” For example, they often give the clips generic titles like “video.”

For context, Google works with Storyful, a Dublin, Ireland company that combs social media posts like Instagram photos and Facebook videos to ensure they are accurate, fills in the details, and secures re-use permission from the creators.

News Lab also partners with Witness, a nonprofit that trains people to safely and accurately record video of cases of human rights abuse, on a project called Witness Media Lab. The first undertaking is to document police misconduct in the U.S. This was a natural place for Grove to start. After leaving ABC News in 2007, he worked at YouTube for four years, where he built the site’s News and Politics team and developed the Human Rights Channel–the forerunner to Witness Media Lab—in collaboration with Witness and Storyful.

Storyful (one of Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Companies for 2015) also works with the Google News Lab on Newswire. This feed of free-to-use (with attribution) eyewitness video grew from collaboration between YouTube and Storyful that began with coverage of the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring of 2011.

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Insight From Search Trends

Another part of News Lab was a major overhaul of Google Trends. Long a go-to site for SEO jockeys, Trends shows how popular a search term is and has been over time. Trends had been only a source of historical data. It showed what people had been looking for, no more recently 36 hours ago–and only for the biggest search terms. With News Lab, Trends has gone real-time, and Google lowered the threshold of searches needed to make it into Trends so journalists could research niche topics.

“Gun shop” has long been a more popular term than “gun control” in the U.S. But after the Charleston, SC church shooting on June 17, the results flipped in all but five states–Kentucky, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Tennessee.

Google News Lab also aims to boost startups. “If you are a journalist or a developer and you have an idea but you don’t’ really know what your first step will be, we want to lower that barrier of entry,” Grove says. News Lab is providing tech training for participants at Matter, a VC firm in San Francisco with an accelerator program to promote media startups. Graduates include GoPop, which makes an app for turning photos into animations and was recently purchased by BuzzFeed.

What’s in all this for Google? Grove seemed generally surprised when I asked him. “We don’t think of it that way,” he says. Of course, getting more eyes on Google content will be good for business. He concedes that, quoting Google’s mission statement to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and saying it “is very resonant with journalism’s mission. I think it’s a very similar end goal.”

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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