Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
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Aug. 3, 2016, 2:26 p.m.
Reporting & Production

At large events like the Republican National Convention, conventional “man-on the-street” style reporting can be time-consuming and occasionally difficult logistically. BuzzFeed wanted to cut out the middle-man using Buzzbot, a Facebook Messenger bot that surveys users about their experience at the RNC. Asking easy yes or no questions and gathering quotes and photos, BuzzFeed was better able to gather information for their RNC feature stories and scour the crowd with minimal interruption and difficulty.

Now, any news outlet can probe huge events Buzzbot style. BuzzFeed’s Open Lab for Journalism, Technology, and the Arts is putting the bot’s tech in your hands by releasing the software as open source on GitHub. Developed by Westley Hennigh-Palermo, a fellow at the Open Lab based in San Francisco, it is the lab’s first Facebook Messenger bot.

The lab releases all of its software as open source under the motto “This might not work and it will probably break,” given the beta nature of its projects. “Our team was distributed along the east and west coasts, so I would develop pieces of the prototype and we would touch base via email or as we traveled around,” says Hennigh-Palermo. “Because the bot was developed as a series of small prototypes, there are parts I desperately want to go back and refactor.”

What might a news outlet get out of building on it? “I think you can potentially use this to get a little more scale and get the texture of the event — getting reactions in the way that reporters always do,” said BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith during an interview with Poynter on the Buzzbot project last month.

“As a lab, we’re here to play with how we gather information on how to tell stories,” says Amanda Hickman, a senior fellow at the Open Lab. “We’re an incredibly collaborative lab. I would argue that it’s dishonest to collaborate with people outside of the lab to get stuff done and then keep it all under lock and key. It’s important to give back and share what we’ve learned.” Compared to scouring social media for reactions, Buzzbot aspires to be more intimate and more directly from the source. “With the bot, we’re able to drill down and have more one-on-one conversations,” says Hickman.

Would Buzzbot software make reporting breaking news any faster? No, but it might make it more complete, according to Hickman. “It lets us reach sources and people who are smack in the middle of things that we cannot reach otherwise. It has the potential to help us find more people who can give us more information on what is happening.”

Some past BuzzFeed bots include Colorbot, a bot that associates color with emojis, an interactive video bot allowing users to interact with Facebook Live, and Dogbot, a dog-treat dispenser fueled by Facebook Live comments.

There’s no defined roadmap yet for Buzzbot, but plenty that could be in store as Buzzfeed News and other reporters make use of the code. “There’s a lot of really basic infrastructure clean up that makes sense to do, but as a newsroom, we haven’t really had a chance to start thinking about the next iteration,” says Hickman. “We’re all taking a breather.”

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