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Embracing Technology in Journalism

Takeaways from Columbia University's Quantifying Journalism Conference

Published at WRAL TechWire

6.6.14

I was prepared for just about anything when I walked up onto the stage at Pulitzer Hall at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University last Friday. I was speaking on the Robot Reporter's impact on the future of journalism -- the last session of the day at their first ever Quantifying Journalism conference.

In the four years that I've been designing and developing automated content at Automated Insights, the reaction of traditional journalists to our technology has been all over the map.

At one point it was straight-up denial – there was no way machines could create content, and even if they could, it would be painfully obvious that the content was created by a machine. See: Mad Libs.

Then there was fear – machines might someday be able to create viable content, which would put suddenly expensive human journalists everywhere out of a job, and maybe even start killing them. See: Skynet.

Fear drifted into a kind of bemused resignation – machines would indeed be able to create some kind of passable content, thus reducing a centuries-old dignified art to a constant stream of listicles and slideshows with soundbites. Since this was exactly where those same defeated journalists saw the industry heading anyway, it wasn't too much of a stretch or a shock.

I had spent the entire trip from Durham to New York anticipating all kinds of questions – from the curious to the skeptical to the cynical. What I didn't anticipate was a warm welcome, but that's exactly what I got.

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Five Startup Concepts We Need To Teach Right Now (Part 1)

Published at WRAL TechWire

7.8.14

Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series. This article covers the first two concepts, with the final three coming in the next installment. Joe is head of Product at Automated Insights, he recently sold his side venture, startup network/news source ExitEvent, to WRAL TechWire parent Capitol Broadcasting. He is starting a new side venture focused on startup education.

After spending the last three-plus years working on startup support and acceleration, something has become clear to me. Startup education is still lagging breadth and depth.

I'm not just talking about secondary school and STEM, but also startup education at the University level, adult continuing education, and the somewhat soft ongoing education required to help potentially great entrepreneurs build great companies.

The good news is it wouldn't take much to change that. But it's probably going to have to come from outside the system.

The Classroom

Like millions of parents across the country, I'm doing the elementary education shuffle. Between district living plans, charter lotteries, private/public options, and extracurricular activities, each year of my three kids' educational journey is filled with big, potentially life-altering decisions that can keep a working couple awake at night.

For all the talk of the STEM education revolution going on at the elementary and middle school level, a lot of it is still just talk. I understand the limitations that budgets and a dated infrastructure place on the STEM mission, but I've stated it before and I'll state it again, you shouldn't teach coding by sitting a kid down in front of an iPad.

The corollary of that theorem is also true: You don't need fancy toys and a mastery of object orientation to give a kid the foundational concepts of STEM. Most of the roots of these concepts are already in the curriculum, they just have to be emphasized.

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Five Startup Concepts We Need To Teach Right Now (Part 2)

Published at WRAL TechWire

7.10.14

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series. The first article, which can be found here, covers the first two concepts, while this one tackles the final three. Joe is head of Product at Automated Insights, he recently sold his side venture, startup network/news source ExitEvent, to WRAL TechWire parent Capitol Broadcasting. He is starting a new side venture focused on startup education.

When I started ExitEvent back in 2011, my idea was to bring together working entrepreneurs in an effort to make them more successful. But my model always assumed “working” entrepreneurs, and I identified them only by their results. Sure, some of them were first timers, but they all had a product or customers or both.

But from the beginning, I was always fascinated by how an entrepreneur became an entrepreneur. It wasn't too long before I started seeing common traits and skills. For example, they all had an obvious passion for what they were doing and they were all keen to take on and manage risk -- two of the concepts I discussed in the first part of this article.

I never took a serious stab at adding an education directive to ExitEvent. The main reason being that startup education is a huge undertaking, still very undefined, and I wanted to keep ExitEvent's laser focus on those entrepreneurs who were already producing.

With ExitEvent having been acquired earlier this year, I was able to turn my focus to startup education, starting by asking the question ““>Are entreprenuers born or made?” and eventually helping out at the UNC Entrepreneurs Lab course taught by Ted Zoller.

I'm heading in this direction partly for selfish reasons. I have three school-age kids of my own.

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Time To Shelve the Turing Test

No, The Turing Test Wasn't Cracked, But It Wouldn't Matter Anyway

Published at ExitEvent

6.16.14

So the Internet collectively lost its mind last week on the story that machines had finally caught up to us cagey humans, and that a "supercomputer" called Eugene Goostman effectively passed the age-old Turing Test.

The Turing Test, as defined by British mathematician Alan Turing in 1950, portends that if a computer can fool enough humans into thinking that it itself is human, it can be considered to have the same level of intelligence as a human.

Then, as the dystopian among us would have you believe, they take over.

I had four thoughts on the subject:

1) Bullshit. That's just a chatbot.

As soon as the claim was made, it was challenged. Experts called into question everything from the low number of judges it convinced (10 out of 30) to the fact that the test was undertaken with stipulations on what kind of human this was supposed to be -- specifically, a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy who spoke English as a second language.

I mean, come on, then do the test in Ukrainian.

But the most obvious detraction is that Eugene is just a chatbot.

Human conversation is not a tennis match. It has stops and starts, it has people talking over one another, it builds on the ideas from the other participant. This chatbot, like all chatbots before it, immediately fell into a generation-old chatbot routine:

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As Robot Writing Matures, Robot Reporting Is the Next Big Thing In Digital Journalism

Published at WRAL TechWire

5.27.14

Editor's Note: On Friday, May 30th, Joe will be speaking on the future of Digital Journalism at Columbia University at a conference at the Tow Center. In a previous column, he discussed why automated content should be considered a tool and not a threat.

Ever since the L.A. Times Quakebot broke the news of a major earthquake back in March -- a story it developed, wrote, and published in less than three minutes after the first tremor -- the profile of digital journalism and automated content has risen dramatically.

For me and my team at Automated Insights, it feels like vindication, because the industry is starting to scale exactly like we thought it would. I've been designing and building automated content for the last four years, and in 2014, Automated Insights will publish over a billion unique articles for dozens of media outlets via the web, email, and social media.

With just 25 humans.

You've probably already read automated content without realizing it. This is because the Robot Writer side of digital journalism is already quite polished. It's a fairly robust technology that we've evolved from a process of filling in templates, the method Quakebot employs when it writes an article, to the programatic determination of topic, tone, style, fact-generation, and lexicon.

In other words, our engine runs dozens of algorithms before the first word is digitally written. It keeps those algorithms going throughout the entire writing process. If you look at what we put into the machine, it looks nothing like prose. It looks more like code. Because it is.

Thus, the process of automated writing is no longer about filling in blanks between words with the proper data. Scalability, variety, point-of-view, sentiment -- all the concepts that make a human-written article sound like it was written by a human -- can be done by a machine.

So if the last few years of automated journalism were about perfecting the Robot Writer, the next few years will focus on the technology that will make automation even more mainstream: The Robot Reporter.

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Why (Good) Journalists Have Nothing to Fear from Automated Content

At Least That's What I Plan to Tell Them

Published at ExitEvent

5.13.14

On Friday, May 30th, I'll be speaking at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University at the Quantifying Journalism: Metrics, Data and Computation Conference. I'll be talking about the Robot Reporter trend, based on the four years of work I've done creating over 100 million automated stories via Automated Insights.

100 million stories, each one unique and professionally written, covering everything from news to finance to sports to marketing and beyond. In fact, by the time 2014 is over, Ai will have produced over 1 billion automated articles. And what I plan to tell the gathered Columbia students and assorted journalism professionals at said conference is that we're not going to put any journalists out of work.

Well, any decent journalists, anyway.

I feel pretty good about that bold statement, basically because it's one I've backed up continually over the last four years, although the need to defend our intentions, so to speak, has lessened recently. People are starting to get it now, the fact that automated content works best in situations where live human journalists either can't produce the content, as in the case of the millions of fantasy football recaps we produce every Tuesday morning, or don't want to, as in the compiling of mountains of big data into an easily digestible narrative.

When you consider that, automated content is actually another tool for the hardworking journalist, not competition.

If anything, those who consider themselves data visualists -- the Excel wranglers and infographic ninjas and Powerpoint enthusiasts of the world -- those are the people who should be worried about automated content.

Oh, and you listicle folks, we're definitely coming for you. With prejudice.

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HBO's Silicon Valley: Yes, You're Watching and Yes, It's Good

An Entrepreneur's Review

Published at WRAL TechWire

5.15.14

Mike Judge is my generation's Woody Allen, or maybe even Bill Shakespeare. And before you roll your eyes, just remember that I'm Gen-X, so my expectations for heroes and leaders have already been beaten down to next to nothing (thanks, Boomers!).

Remember Beavis and Butthead? That show should have been terrible. But underneath the sophomoric humor and bent edges where television had just begun to push the envelope of taste (see: Tosh.0), that stupid cartoon neatly skewered everything that was wrong with MTV, the music industry, and pop culture, back when we cared about that kind of thing.

The best parts of that show were and still are the music video commentaries. The rest of it was just filler, but filler we forgave.

And then Office Space, Judge's Citizen Kane and a film virtually ignored in the mainstream when it was released, became a cult classic and an industry standard. Fifteen years later, it remains the most oft-quoted workplace movie of all time.

I still drop lines about TPS reports, PC Load Letter, and cases of Mondays, not because I'm looking for a cheap joke like I would with an Anchorman quote, but because I know you'll get the message.

And now Silicon Valley, a new Sunday night HBO show aimed directly at the Hollywoodized, overhyped, and preciously insider parts of startup. I wanted to hate this show so much. I put off watching it until the fourth episode, although thanks to the startupish miracle of digital streaming and binge watching, I was able to start from the beginning. Within minutes, I heard this line:

"Yeah, I know what binary is! I memorized the hexadecimal times tables when I was 14 writing machine code, okay? Ask me what 9 times F is! It's fleventy-five!"

And I laughed out loud. Then I was hooked, and my faith in Mike Judge once again paid off.

See, you're not going to hear that kind of joke on Two and Half Men. Or for that matter the Big Bang Theory. Or at least I don't think you would. Truth be told, I'm guessing. I've never watched either show.

My point is that Mike Judge went and made a show for startup people under the guise of a show about startup people. The brilliance of Silicon Valley isn't in how it depicts what startup is really like, because it doesn't. It's a good show because it depicts exactly what everyone who isn't in startup thinks startup is really like.

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Warning: You May Already Be Reading Computer-Generated Content

The Stigma of Automated Content is Fading

Published at ExitEvent

3.21.14

In an article today in The Daily Dot, I talked with writer Aaron Sankin about the proliferation of automated content in news stories. The article was inspired by a couple recent events.

Two weeks ago, Karstad University's Dr. Christer Clerwall published the findings of his study of automated content vs. human-written content in the 2014 volume of Journalism Practice. Dr. Clerwall used samples from Automated Insights' StatSheet product (which Robbie Allen and I built over three years ago) to compare against actual journalist-written articles of the same NFL game.

His conclusion: Not only is automated content virtually indistinguishable from human-generated content, but in most cases it is deemed as more credible and trustworthy.

By the way, I've since spoken to Clerwall, and it's obvious he gets where automated content is going and why it's so valuable.

As you might imagine, this news got picked up by a lot of outlets, including PandoDaily and the Daily Dot.

Then, the Monday, March 17th Los Angeles earthquake story was "broken" in the LA Times with a computer-generated story published by QuakeBot, which monitors and reports on the data feed from the U.S. Geological Survey.

People were fascinated, and rightly so. This is a perfect example of machines being able to break news at a moment's notice. However, much like those automated weather service warnings you get on your television and radio, it's not exactly brand new.

In fact, you've probably already read your share of automated content, especially in the areas of sports, finance, weather, real estate, and personal fitness.

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ExitEvent Acquired by American Underground

Here's How It Went Down

Published at ExitEvent

2.3.14

How it Started - by Joe Procopio

Well, one thing to note is there was acquisition interest almost from the beginning. I'm a working entrepreneur, and ExitEvent was something I started because I was convinced it needed to exist. Because I'm an entrepreneur, I built it like a startup -- that's pretty much all I know. I don't know how to run foundations or dot-orgs, I know how to build and run companies. But because I'm a working entrepreneur, I knew I could never devote more than 3-5 hours a week to the cause.

I invited 12 founders to the first ExitEvent Startup Social, and 50 showed up. When I first opened up the network, requests came in rushes. When I first put content up on the site, the audience exploded. It was always more than I could handle, and the sacrifice was to keep ExitEvent underpowered. This sucked, because for over two years I knew it could be more than it was. Turning away business is a good problem to have, but when that business is making startups better, it's not a good problem at all. It's just a problem that needs a solution. Stat.

It took the better part of those two years for me to swallow my pride and decide that there was probably someone out there who could do ExitEvent better than me. In any case, I knew there were several people out there who could devote more time to it, because they were already coming to me. So this past summer I started seriously listening to what the options were, and thankfully, one set of options made perfect sense.

I've known Adam Klein since he was doing really cool things at the Durham Chamber, making a lot of something out of next-to-nothing. With each project he took on, there was always more to it than what the average person saw, and when he went over to American Underground, he brought that ethos with him. Today, American Underground isn't just about a place for startups to sit. It's a lot more than that. I'm not sure anyone has the exact handle on what it'll become, but now it has a voice.

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Study Finds Human Writing Indistinguishable from Automated Insights Content

Published at Automated Insights

3.6.14

A study published in the 2014 issue of Journalism Practice proved that not only was Automated Insights machine-generated content indistinguishable from journalist-created content, but that our automated content was viewed as more informative and more credible.

Christer Clerwall, from the Department of Media and Communication Studies at Karstad University in Sweden, conducted a pilot. For the test, 46 students in media and communications studies were given either a professionally-written NFL game recap from the L.A. Times or an automated recap of the same game from Automated Insights. They were asked to assess their article on both quality and credibility. They were also asked whether the article was written by a journalist or our engine.

Robot or Human


This certainly isn't the first time Automated Insights has been directly or indirectly involved with a robot vs. human test. It's something we always do in-house as a part of our normal QA process. Considering we've been at this for almost four years, we weren't surprised at the results.

From the study:

"Of the 27 respondents who read the software-generated text, 10 thought a journalist wrote it and 17 thought it was software-generated. For the 18 respondents in the “journalist group”, 8 perceived it as having been written by a journalist, but 10 thought software wrote it. Using a Mann–Whitney test for significance, we can conclude that there is no significant difference (U = 225, r = -0.07, significance = 0.623) between how the groups have perceived the texts."

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The False Choice of Cursive Versus Coding

Don't Toss the Basics In the Name of the Future

Published at ExitEvent

3.17.14

This opinion is completely devil's advocate for me. As I've been spending the last few months digging down into how we could and should teach entrepreneurism, I've been investigating how we teach coding and technology in both elementary school and high school.

I also have three kids under 10, and I'm teaching all of them how to code.

But I'm beginning to wonder if we're doing it wrong.

To disclaim, I've been on board with calling out the critical need for more STEM education, specifically more technology and coding skills, for years. I'm of the generation where from eighth grade until my junior year, I was the ONLY kid in my high school's computer class.

By the way, do you have any idea how alienating that is? It's a total miracle I'm not more messed up.

Where you lose me is the argument of how pitiful and morally wrong it is that we still teach kids cursive but not coding, a false choice that reached a collective fever pitch with this article in The Week.

The same argument was made with Latin probably 30 years ago, and when Latin fell by the wayside (I remember it was still an elective just before I got to high school), there was still no coding in its wake.

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Allow Me to Introduce My Quantified Self

The Hardware Boom Opens Up a Whole New Playground

Published at ExitEvent

1.15.14

"Hi, my name is Joe. I run 4.1 miles a day at a 7:52 mile clip and I sleep 6.6 hours a night at 55.4% deep sleep. I have 435 friends, 1359 followers, and 1267 connections. I went to 136 places in 24 cities last year, and I drove an average of 32.6 miles a day to get there (at 42.2 miles per hour). In the last 30 days, I answered 28 questions, read 121 articles, and wrote another 12. I currently rank #7 in cool points, but also #3 in douchebaggery."

OK, so most of that is fake. Except that last one.

But frankly, I'm so excited about the opportunities springing up around the quantified self, brought about by the Hardware Revolution and the Internet of Things, that I don't want to get too specific with my examples just for a lame opening joke. There's data in them there hills, and the resulting gold rush is going to make Web 2.0 look like the dot-com boom.

Most of the last ten-or-so years of the Internets has been marked by a movement to find out exactly what it is we like. Our preferences are requested, cajoled, bartered, and begged out of us in order to produce timely, effective ads that can be shoved back at us.

That worked and it didn't. It worked in the sense that thousands of companies were formed and some, like Google for instance, rocketed to great success on the promise of a better advertisement. It hasn't in the sense that the ads still aren't that targeted, aren't that effective, and the Internet has got to be about more than pushing flavored vodka at me on every page I visit.

The beauty of quantification is that we can finally start using the web to discover and better ourselves instead of telling it what we think we want. Quantification doesn't lie, nor is it susceptible to moods or bias.

read the rest at: http://exitevent.com/allow-me-to-introduce-my-quantified-self-14115.asp


Social Media Marketing in a Post-Twitter World

It's Time to Start Thinking About What's Next

Published at ExitEvent

10.23.13

While everyone is simply giddy with the notion of Twitter going public, I thought I might, in what I hope is true entrepreneurial fashion, pose the question no one is asking:

What happens when Twitter becomes irrelevant?

That noise you just heard is the cumulative shriek of thousands of social media marketing ninjas. I'm not saying they're reading this article, they just feel a disturbance in the Twitterverse, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and suddenly stopped posting things like: "Totally pumped and excited for [insert some bullshit business thing here] #motivated #neverstopdreaming #bieber"

I'll be the first to admit that I'm a Twitter slacker. I don't follow a lot of people, and 90% of the time I look at my feed, it's full of garbage. I have other accounts, because you can, and those are a bit more varied in terms of topic, but it's still a lot of noise for a little bit of signal.

I use hashtags at conferences when I know what I'm posting will be relevant to those following the hashtag within the next 90 minutes or so. I've followed hashtags on breaking news, which is where I think Twitter's value is (near real-time information), but never on television shows or movies I happen to be watching. Same for sporting events. If I want the opinion on a blown call from thousands of know-it-all douchebags, I'll just go to the game.

I can't tell you how much hashtagging a slogan bugs me. Every time you do that, Satan gets a nickel.

read the rest at: http://exitevent.com/social-media-marketing-in-a-post-twitter-world-131023.asp


you suck

why the new civility was doomed from the start

Published at Intrepid Media

4.1.11

You suck.

You're terrible. Everything you know is wrong. And possibly also evil, but definitely stupid. You take the world way too seriously. What you care about is trivial and superficial.

You believe everything you hear and read except those things which are true and unbiased. In fact, you blindly accept as fact a whole bunch of lies and propaganda generated by sources who have in mind only the best interests of the worst kind of people.

Now as for me, let's get one thing perfectly clear. I'm right. My principles are driven by higher intellectual thinking, a greater capacity for empathy for my fellow man, and the kind of wisdom that can only be learned from a lifetime of experiences and circumstances that you could not possibly have understood or withstood.

I can't fathom why you act the way you do, and since I don't get it, I will judge it. Harshly. With extreme prejudice. Wait. Not prejudice. Let's make that extreme righteousness.

You're going to need to face the fact that you don't make sense. You're not even close. And it's not because of the validity of your argument. That's just a smokescreen for your complete lack of capacity to recognize that what's wrong with you is latent, passive, part of your makeup.

See, it's not even your fault. You're just a dupe. But I'll hold it against you just the same.

read the rest at: http://www.intrepidmedia.com/column.asp?id=4285


Legit! ExitEvent News Turns One

Over 200 Articles About Startups Last Year, and We're Just Scratching the Surface

Published at ExitEvent

5.31.13

Just over a year ago, on May 15, 2012, I posted the first-ever ExitEvent News article and rolled out the News section with zero fanfare. There was no fancy marketing campaign, no money spent on advertising at all, and a very limited pool of resources for writing (me), editing (me), and site build (me).

This article you've got your eyes on right now is the 232nd news article published on ExitEvent News. 100% of them are original, 0% of them come from a press release.

Since that first article, ExitEvent News has seen hundreds of thousands of readers and well over a half-million reads. Not bad for a website that never spent so much as a dime on advertising.

I attribute some of ExitEvent News' success to the contributions of some very talented writers, and some less regular writers but full-time founders like Aaron Houghton, Anil Chawla, and Elliott Hauser, among others, all of whom brought you their stories unfiltered.

The bulk of its success, however, I attribute to you.

ExitEvent itself started on a lark, and ExitEvent News started on a dare. I launched ExitEvent News last year because it needed to be done, and I wanted to prove it could be done. You guys just kept coming back and reading it, so I just kept writing it.

read the rest at: http://exitevent.com/legit-exitevent-news-turns-one-13531.asp


Hire Right From the Start

Published at News & Observer

11.19.13

On Nov. 12, I spoke on a panel titled “People, Partners and Culture” at the Startup Summit at the Raleigh Convention Center.

For an hour, my fellow panelists – Leela Srinivasan from LinkedIn, Delisa Alexander from Red Hat and Amit Jain, founder of Prysm – and I talked about hiring and creating company culture at a startup.

Automated Insights is the 10th startup I have either worked for or founded. In the beginning, there were just two of us – the founder and me – building our automated content engine and producing thousands of articles for millions of readers.

We spent about two months of long, consecutive days working closely together.

Had we not fit perfectly together, not only in terms of our individual skills but also our personalities and motivations, we would have failed. There was simply no one else to pick up the ball if we dropped it.

I've found this to be true at every startup I've been associated with. The core team – those first few hires – is more critical to the success of the company than any other component. They're more important than the idea, the business model, even investment.

And it's not simply about hiring the smartest or most talented people you can find.

read the rest at: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/11/18/3382966/column-hire-right-from-the-start.html


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