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Aug. 22, 2017, 10:31 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Quartz created a bot that can break news — and wants to help other news orgs develop their own

The news site plans to unveil a suite of Slack-based tools designed to simplify the process of creating bots to follow certain pages or data.

Since its early days, Quartz has built its brand on in part on infusing coding into its reporting. Now, the organization is close to making it easier for other organizations to bring a similar spirit to their own newsrooms.

At the Online News Association conference next month, Quartz plans to unveil a suite of Slack-based tools designed to simplify the process of creating bots to follow certain pages or data. With the tool, a local crime reporter, could, for example, create a bot that monitors the local police department’s website and alerts them whenever there’s an update. Technology and finance reporters could do the same with bots that monitor SEC filings. Quartz is building the tools, which it teased last year, thanks to the $250,000 grant it got from the Knight Foundation in late 2016.

John Keefe, head of Quartz’s Bot Studio, said that the planned tools are part of the same spirit of Quartz that created Chartbuilder, a once-internal Quartz tool that the organization has since opened up to other news organizations. Ditto for Quartz’s Atlas, which the site launched in 2015 to let users share and discover charts.

“There will always be room for these kinds of bespoke ‘let’s watch this particular thing or aspect of the world and write something on what we find’ kinds of stories. Those will always be around, and you’ll only see more of them as more journalists become aware of the possibilities.”

With the tools, Quartz is drawing on its own expertise building similar bots in-house. In May, Keith Collins, a tech reporter and developer at Quartz, created @actual_ransom, a Twitter bot that tracked and tweeted in realtime when victims of the WannaCry ransombot paid hackers to regain access to their systems. The attack, which in May attacked 300,000W systems including at hospitals and telecom companies, created some unique reporting challenges for Collins, who initially covered the attack by manually tracking the three bitcoin addresses owned by the hackers and tweeting whenever a victim paid the hackers — hoping to offer an approximate idea of how much the hackers were pulling in via the scheme.

@actual_ransom, which Collins developed over a weekend using a Bitcoin API, both simplified the process and helped Quartz break some news. Twelve weeks after the initial attack, the hackers (which many experts hypothesized were agents of North Korea looking to simply stir trouble, not make money) surprised observers by cashing out the bitcoin accounts. The @actual_ransom bot, which was still online, was first to pick up the news, beating out the many tech reporters following the story.

For Quartz, the @actual_ransom bot has become a textbook case of how a Twitter bot could be used to serve and get information out to people interested in a specific topic. For the security researchers, bitcoin enthusiasts, and even other technology reporters covering the story, the account quickly became an indispensable way to follow the attack as it developed. “WannaCry was a breaking news event that lent itself well to to the medium,” said Collins, adding that the @actual_ransom was the newsiest bot he’s created so far. “That’s the kind of stuff we want to look out for. When something is going on, is there a piece of the story that has public information tied to it that we could aggregate with a bot better than we could with a human?”

The @actual_ransom bot is similar in aims and spirit to Quakebot, which then-Los Angeles Times data reporter Ken Schwencke developed to tweet whenever an earthquake over a certain magnitude was detected around Los Angeles. Quakebot also beat reporters to stories on its beat, such as the magnitude 4.7 earthquake in March of 2014.

Keefe said these tools demonstrate the power of bots, which work best when they augment the capabilities of the reporters who build them. But he recognized that, while such creations come relatively easily to the technology-inclined developers at Quartz, that’s not the case for many news organizations. That’s why Quartz is interested in offering some of that expertise to others who are interested.

“The fact that, for a period of time, Keith was manually checking accounts before having the idea of saying, ‘a computer could do this better than I could,’ and then having the facilities to build something — that’s a power thing that’s emerging these days,” said Keefe. “Keith didn’t have to go to a coder — he built it himself. That’s the evolution of programming-capable journalists.”

Photo of a robot with a pencil by Plutor used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 22, 2017, 10:31 a.m.
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