October 20, 2015

“It’s the year 299, and we catch up with our dastardly group along the rippling waters of The Riverlands. Tywin Lannister with the Lannisters strike Edmure Tullys and the Tullys. The Lannisters outweigh the Tullys in number with an army of 20,000 men. But with a twist of fate, Edmure Tullys and Jason Mallister defend Red Fork, claiming victory.”

If the preceding paragraph looks familiar, you’ve probably spent some time with “A Song of Ice and Fire,” George R. R. Martin’s fictional saga that became the basis for HBO’s hit show “Game of Thrones.” If it doesn’t look familiar, that might be because it never appeared in the blockbuster fantasy series — because it wasn’t written by a human.

The recap emerged from a hackathon held this June by Automated Insights, a company that develops and peddles software that turns structured data into readable narratives. Wordsmith, the company’s flagship product, can’t compete with Martin when it comes to imaginative and inventive prose. But unlike Martin — who takes years to pen each novel — Wordsmith “wrote” the summary in an instant, using a new interface that’s currently being tested by Automated Insights.

On Tuesday, Automated Insights publicly announced that interface, a product that will make Wordsmith available for self-service for the first time.

“We get requests all the time from people that wanted to touch it, use it, play with it,” said Robbie Allen, the founder and CEO of Automated Insights. “We heard that enough, and the technology had developed in such a way that we could create something that I thought would be user-friendly.”

The new offering, which is currently in the beta stage, represents a new frontier for Automated Insights. Up until today, the company’s business revolved around working with clients to produce “custom implementations,” models for data narratives that were crafted by staffers at Automated Insights and written by the company’s software. This service comes with a significant price tag — anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 per month depending on the client’s request. The new product, which does not require input from staffers at Automated Insights, will be much cheaper, although a price hasn’t been fixed yet.

“We’ll still offer the ability to use our services to help with your data or creating the story structures or whatever you need,” Allen said. “But if you just want to use the platform, depending on the volume at which you’re needing to use it, it’ll be significantly less than if you had us doing the work.”

Before today’s launch, Automated Insights was already well known in future-of-media circles for automating the production of earnings report stories and collegiate sports recaps for The Associated Press. The software proved to be extremely prolific and accurate — in January, Automated Insights announced Wordsmith increased the news cooperative’s earnings reports stories by tenfold with “far fewer errors” than stories produced by humans. In March, The AP announced it would use the software to generate thousands of stories about NCAA athletics.

This was all done amid hand-wringing that automated labor would replace journalists, as it has workers in so many other industries. But so far, Allen says, Automated Insights isn’t aware of a single journalist that has been pushed out of a job by Wordsmith. Lou Ferrara, a managing editor at The Associated Press, has repeatedly said the software hasn’t eliminated jobs; rather, it frees up journalists to do work that can’t be automated.

A demo of the product given to Poynter earlier this month shed some light on how the new software works. After users upload their data to Wordsmith, they are invited to create a template that dictates how the files will be interpreted. By creating a series of logical steps called branches, users can determine how variables in the data will appear in the story. Each template reads like a mad lib, with blank spaces filled in by various data when the files are processed. One comes away with the impression that using Wordsmith will be relatively straightforward for any journalist with a facility for data.

Automated Insights on Tuesday launched a self-service version of Wordsmith, its automated writing product. (Photo courtesy Automated Insights.)

The interface for Wordsmith, Automated Insights’ new self-service platform for automatic writing. (Photo courtesy Automated Insights.)

By debuting a no-hassle interface at a lower price point, Automated Insights hopes to lure customers from a variety of different industries to its product. The free beta program has already drawn interest from additional media companies, Allen says, but Automated Insights isn’t yet disclosing which ones. Allen thinks automation will have an enormous impact on journalism, creating a new category of data-driven writing.

“If you think about all the innovation that’s occurred over the last 20 years that’s impacted just about every aspect of our lives, one thing that we do on a daily basis that’s completely unchanged is the writing process,” Allen said. “…But now, with Wordsmith generally available, it’s essentially a new way to create stories that result in not one story being produced, but potentially hundreds, thousands, even millions of articles.”

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of Poynter.org. He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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