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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Data reaches the optimization loop

“The initial consumer of content is increasingly not human. The consumer is software, and software’s favorite food is data.”

As software eats the world, it consumes value chains and makes markets more efficient. It also leaves behind data, an artifact that speeds up the consumption by more software. 2014 will be the year that forces of data reshape journalism.

hassan-hodgesBill Schmarzo wrote about big data maturity as a five-step process where data is first used for basic monitoring, then enables deeper insights into performance. From there, connecting loops between data and automated action enable optimized businesses. The optimization loop that removes humans is what the world is inching ever closer to. From self-driving cars to Facebook feeds to automated trading, software is making decisions based on the data created by other software. News is part of these loops, providing both the ingredients for other people’s loops, and for our own products.

The first place data starts to matter is with internal decision making. Data lets us see what content is working and what content is not. The more data gets injected into business processes, the faster the system moves, creating a desire for more data. Once an organization gets data, it never goes back.

The power of data comes from the connections it makes to other data. The CAR space has been a side project in many newsrooms, and is increasingly moving into automated Twitter bots and alerts. Data connections are key here, and the more data connections that feed into the all-consuming software, the more these outputs matter. The more these things matter, the more they move into a central focus of an organization.

These connections are also showing up on the advertiser side. The rise of iPad-based point-of-sale systems is a bigger deal than simply swiping the same card on a different box. Many of these systems are platforms for more software — software that creates and consumes data about your transactions and behaviors. That data changes the way customers who advertise with media companies operate, and also create opportunities and/or threats as those loops point back to advertising.

Content consumption tools such as Zite and Prismatic gather data about users to provide personalized selections of articles tailored for mobile. Meanwhile, Circa is working to transform the structure of articles to match the mobile medium by breaking articles into individual updates. How long until these forces combine and algorithms recommend just listicle items 3, 10, and 13-19?

In this emerging data-looped world, where algorithms shuffle content through the tubes, the initial consumer of content is increasingly not human. The consumer is software, and software’s favorite food is data. These forces converging in 2014 will push content to look more like data and data to look more like content. It’s up to us to make sure content still makes a difference in our world.

Going back to the maturity model, the next two steps after optimization are very encouraging: creation of new monetization channels and complete transformation of business models. We’ll save those for the 2015 predictions, assuming SkyNet does not become self-aware. I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

Hassan Hodges is director of innovation for the MLive Media Group and a former cartographer.

                         
Updating regularly through Friday, December 20