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Lessons from the Newsroom - A Case for the AI-augmented Joint Information Center

Posted By Deborah Grigsby Smith, MPIO, Communications and Media Manager, Centennial Airport , Monday, March 16, 2020
Updated: Wednesday, March 4, 2020

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This is the latest in a series of blogs from graduates of FEMA’s Master Public Information Officer course, highlighting the research they completed over their year-long course of study. NAGC is partnering with FEMA in this effort as part of our shared mission to help government communicators better serve their communities. You can learn more about the Master PIO course and other training at www.training.fema.gov.

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If you’ve ever worked in a newsroom, then you know there’s a precise flow of information from reporter to editor to publication. And if you’ve also worked in a large joint information center, then you may have noticed there are quite a few similarities.

In both cases, groups of information “gatherers” come together to produce not only content specific to their respective organization or “beat,” if you will, but also content that reflects a larger, more collective and unified voice.

Magic, right?

Well, it was until the amount of information began to exceed the capacity of those tasked with its scrutiny and vetting.

Thus enter technology.

Examples of news-writing algorithms made headlines, literally, in 2014 when digital news editor and computer programmer Ken Schwencke wrote a few lines of code to pull alerts from the U.S. Geological Survey any time an earthquake exceeded a specified magnitude threshold.

The algorithm, called Quakebot, would then extract the relevant data and plug it into a pre-written story template, much like a form letter. On the morning of March 17, 2014, Schwencke was rattled from his slumber by an early morning quake. Instead of diving for cover, he rushed to his laptop where he found a news story about the 4.7 earthquake, already written and waiting in the queue. He quickly proofed the text and hit "publish."

Within three minutes, the story appeared online, making the Los Angeles Times the first media outlet to report the Westwood, California earthquake. It would also make the Los Angeles Times the first major media outlet to publish a news story written entirely—and autonomously—by a “robot reporter.”

Several major news organizations now employ artificial intelligence (AI) storytelling technologies to help them cover more stories — and do it better.

The Washington Post, The Associated Press and The Guardian all leverage the power of AI to plow through mountains of data-rich stories such as corporate earnings, local elections and high school sports.

Besides the ability to crank out short fact-based stories, robot reporters are also quite adept at identifying trends and anomalies in data that might typically be overlooked by a tired and time-constrained human reporter.

The idea is not to replace human reporters but to leverage technology that freed them from routine labor-intensive tasks, enabling them to produce more high-value work.

Whoa! Now you have my attention.

What if there were software packages similar to those AI-based content management systems used in newsrooms that could be adapted for use in the joint information center environment?

Sure there’s WebEOC, but beyond that, there’s not a lot out of technology available to support JICs.

Think about it.

When a medium- to large-scale JIC stands up, public information officers show up, each with their toolbox comprised of a collection of template documents and some off-the-shelf items such as social media monitoring platforms or Google docs.

Then we hustle to stitch together something on the fly.

We, as public information officers, are looking at a tipping point.

Can we continue to use a traditional workflow in the age of social media tampering and bots to deliver the right message to the right people at the right time?

I say we need some help, and that help should be in the form of a custom, scalable AI-based content management system designed for the joint information environment, similar to those used in newsrooms.

Let's face it — it’s time we come into our own as public information officers who are expected to work quickly and competently in an information-saturated emergency environment.

While I’m not exactly sure what this tool would look like, I felt strongly enough about its potential — and need — to explore it as part of my Master Public Information Officer research requirement.

I looked at three case studies of major newsrooms and how they employed AI-based storytelling tools within their news flow using robot reporters. The results were surprisingly positive. Efficiency and accuracy soared, and reporters were free to go about more in-depth and high-value stories.

While research among working public information and communications professionals indicated most are not ready to completely relinquish control and publication of messaging to an algorithm, all survey respondents indicated a strong interest in the need for a specialized content management tool for the JIC.

Who will fund it? Who will create it?

I don’t know — yet.

That’s what I’m hoping my research helps flush out.

However, while I cross my fingers for help from both public and private sector entities, here are three ways you, as a public information leader, can begin to prepare yourself and your organization for our inevitable working relationship with AI.

Accept the fact you’re already working closely with AI

It’s here, and it’s made itself at home in almost every facet of our lives. Like it or not, as a public information officer AI already plays a very big role in your job—starting with the smartphone you most likely have in your hand now. Need to get to your next interview? Chances are you’ll use a navigation app that will offer the most expeditious route as well as predict your arrival time. Taking Lift or Uber? That spike in your fare comes from an algorithm that uses data points such as driver supply and demand, the length and duration of your trip, and traffic density along the route to your destination.

Planning to catch up on current events along the way? A growing amount of news is not not only selected for you using AI, but it’s actually written for you by an algorithm or more fondly known as a “robot reporter.” And those social media feeds you monitor? Yup, driven by AI and fueled by bots—autonomous software applications that interact with users, and some, like Siri, even emulate human conversation.

Technology will continue to accelerate communication at an incredible rate, and as professional — and trusted—creators and curators of public information, it’s crucial we’re prepared to lead in a technology-literate world.

Educate yourself now

No, this doesn’t mean you need a degree in artificial intelligence, but it does mean you should muster a basic understanding of what it is, how it works, and how it may impact you as a public communicator. Used well, this tool can be a big help.

Don’t be late to the game on this one.

Explore how the private sector leverages the power of artificial intelligence. Marketing and public relations firms — as well as newsrooms — have embraced the advantage AI-based tools provide. Whether it is in-depth market intelligence or automating routine tasks, algorithms help firms plow through mountains of data, quickly. They can detect trends and anomalies often missed under deadline. Smooth-running content management systems ensure proper checks and balances and provide valuable analytics.

Reach out to universities that offer workshops and classes. Ask private sector firms for information and a free trial of their product. Provide them with feedback: what you like,

what you don’t like, and what doesn’t make sense. Talk to them about what you do use and how their product could better serve you.

Put money in your budget now

If you’ve taken the time to educate yourself, then you know that technology is not cheap, and it changes — constantly. Put money in your budget now for training and consulting. Depending on how big, small or complicated your organization is, make sure they start seeing these types of line items sooner rather than later. Sure, these line items may get scratched, but the value of putting them on the radar will be beneficial and strengthen your case when the time comes.

DEBORAH GRIGSBY SMITH was hired in 2014 as Centennial Airport’s (KAPA) first communications manager and public information officer. She manages and directs much of the Englewood, CO-based airport’s external communications and media relations efforts. A former print journalist, photographer, and veteran of both Gulf wars, Deborah’s areas of expertise include social media, crisis communications, media relations, and feature-writing. During her tenure at Centennial Airport, social media engagement and earned media coverage increased dramatically. Deborah serves as the communications chair for the Northwest Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives. She holds three Colorado Press Association Awards and in 2017 was nominated by the Emergency Services Public Information Officers of Colorado as Small Agency Public Information Officer of the Year. She is recently completed the Master Public Information Officer candidate at the Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Maryland. She resides in Englewood, CO with her pilot husband and half-tailed cat, WeeGee.

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