What if artificial intelligence could report the news, or at least help journalists report the news?
Cal Poly Computer Science Professor Foaad Khosmood is investigating that very question as the lead researcher on a new project at the Cal Poly Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy to “develop an artificial intelligence system that will strengthen coverage of state and local governments,” according to a press release.
Backed by a $200,000 grant from the Knight Foundation and help from partners at the University of Miami, Khosmood and fellow institute members are setting out to create an AI system that would in essence equip journalists with information about the activities of state legislatures.
The hope, Khosmood told New Times, is that the tool could expand and improve state government coverage at local and regional media outlets—an area of journalism that has especially suffered amid the economic slide of the news industry. According to the Pew Research Center, less than a third of U.S. newspapers assign any reporters to statehouses.
“The eyes have been taken off of statehouse reporting. Everybody is noticing this,” Khosmood said. “There is a tragic undercoverage.”
Researchers describe the tool under construction as “a prototype news wire service where narrative content covering state legislatures is automatically generated from primary data sources and can be distributed to local and regional news organizations for publication.” Combining algorithms and natural language processing, the project will leverage existing technologies to explore a new frontier.
“This algorithmic writing isn’t new, but it’s never been done for politics; it’s never been done for government—that stuff is more nuanced,” Khosmood said. “This has been a barrier, and I feel we have the talent here at Cal Poly. We think we can do this.”
It’s not the first time the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy has worked to expand the public’s access to Sacramento. In 2015, the institute successfully developed Digital Democracy, a first-of-its-kind search engine that enabled reporters and the public to find full transcripts of legislative hearings and proceedings, which the tool generated, and even filter through them by a specific speaker or issue.
This project is a next step, with a hope of delivering to journalists even more useful and curated information.
“The intent is to help local news organizations by augmenting their staff,” said Lindsay Grace, the University of Miami School of Communication’s Knight Chair of Interactive Media and the co-lead researcher on the project. “The combination of AI and natural language processing creates an app to do some of the basic elements of reporting: collecting quotes, who said what. … What we’re doing is taking that data and converting it to journalistic prose. We’ll start the reporting for you, but we’re not looking at replacing journalists.”
A Mustang News reporter and KCPR host during his undergrad years at Cal Poly, Khosmood said he’s always been interested in journalism—especially the intersection of journalism and technology.
“This is a project that fits really, really nicely in that space,” Khosmood said.
Throughout the project, Khosmood said he and his team, which includes student researchers, will be collaborating directly with journalists to ensure that the tool is as useful as possible to newsrooms.
“The Knight Foundation was very adamant that this should work in the journalism space that exists now,” he said. “Hopefully, if it does succeed, it could be a real game changer.”
• The Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County opened its 2020 application period for the Community Needs Grant program. The annual grants totaling $37 million since 1998 bring “together multiple funds to respond to current needs in the county and to support local nonprofit organizations in achieving their missions,” a press release stated. In addition to targeting community needs “identified by local assessments,” the foundation will also consider giving grants to organizations that benefit arts and culture, the environment, human services, women and girls, the LGBTQ-plus community, and seniors and people with disabilities. The deadline to submit proposals is March 31. Visit cfsloco.org for more information. Δ
Assistant Editor Peter Johnson wrote this week’s Strokes and Plugs. Send tidbits to firstname.lastname@example.org.