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SmartNews goes ダウンタウン

Japanese comedy duo, Downtown, in new SmartNews commercials

SmartNews kicked off a new TV advertising campaign in Japan bringing together Hitoshi Matsumoto and Masanori Hamada from the comedy duo Downtown co-star in a commercial together for the first time in 10 years.

Several features that are unique to our Japanese edition are in the campaign. The hugely popular coupon feature which, if you’re lucky, will grant you a free meal at a local fast food shop and my favorite, the Rain Radar with real-time weather alerts.

SmartNews Rain Radar
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Apple Publishes Mobility Data

Apple published an interesting visualization of data they have on the number of times Apple Maps users looked up directions and how the frequency has changed during the pandemic.

The Mobility Trends Report is not only a great way to show the value of Apple’s aggregate data but also an opportunity for the company to explain it’s privacy policies.

Privacy is a fundamental human right. At Apple, it’s also one of our core values, so Maps doesn’t associate your data with your Apple ID, and Apple doesn’t keep a history of where you’ve been.

This data is generated by counting the number of requests made to Apple Maps for directions in select countries/regions, sub-regions, and cities. Data that is sent from users’ devices to the Maps service is associated with random, rotating identifiers so Apple doesn’t have a profile of your movements and searches. The availability of data in a particular country/region, sub-region, or city is based on a number of factors, including minimum thresholds for direction requests per day.

Apple – Our Commitment to Privacy
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Coronavirus Data

When you work for a news app and there’s lots of news, you’re busy.

At SmartNews we’ve been busy trying to get a handle on the numbers behind the Coronavirus pandemic and present it in a way that is meaningful to SmartNews users.

We started with a simple widget with totals for confirmed cases along with those that had recovered. We designed a way to put US and Global numbers in once widget that updated daily. Tapping on the More data link to you to a full page with interactive graphs showing the cumulative totals of these numbers over time along with the death count.

As casualties grew and recovery data started to look inconsistent (it’s not clear when you recover and many states do not require hospitals to record recovery rates), we made the difficult decision to post the death count on the widget, replacing the recovered figure. We re-built the data pipeline to pull in data more frequently so we added a counter to show the current daily totals compared to yesterday’s total.

Then we added county-level data to satisfy the growing interest in local information.

The most recent iteration, in the app today, adds back in the global number to give context to the US figures. We’ll continue to iterate on this widget to bring the most useful information to our users.

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Factiva

In 1999 I was at the founding of Factiva, a joint venture between Dow Jones and Reuters, two of the leading news organizations at the time. This global JV brought together the news archival databases of both companies and made them available “on the web” which was a big deal back then.

Factiva Launch Video

With the right information, our possibilities are endless.

The Factiva product had a super-complicated search UI which allowed you to create complex search statements that could find articles that mentioned Ford and Aardvark in the first paragraph within 5 words of each other but only in articles written by Phillip Roth (no, I do not think such an article exists btw). This database had over 9,000 newspapers, magazines and news wires. Every single article going back decades, fully indexed and fielded for detailed spelunking. The web was only a minor side tab, we crawled something like 300 sites.

With the right information, we can seize opportunities we never realized we had.

Factiva was a huge business, 26 offices around the world, hundreds of millions in revenue each year. We sold our product to the top global companies around the world. We consulted with them on their information needs and delivered the news and information they needed to run their business. We thought we were hot shit.

If information is going to be our most valuable asset, facts will be its currency.

Playing back the marketing launch video at the top of the post, its funny how innocent it all sounds. All you need are facts to make the world a better place. With facts, all will be right.

Every fact can invigorate and improve the way we think.

Today our elected leaders will decide if testimony and documents from key individuals with first hand knowledge of the Ukraine/Biden/Zelensky affair are necessary to pass judgement on Trump’s impeachment. I really hope our Senators answer a higher calling and #TakeOneWeek to remove any doubt but I’ve become too cynical to see that happening. Facts are not needed in the “pick your truth” world we live in today.

Just imagine what we can do with hundreds and thousands of facts at our fingertips.

So back the Factiva promo video. 1999 was a time when information was scarce. You usually had to work with a corporate “information professional” to use specialized databases to locate and find what you needed. Information was mediated, curated by editors and fact-checked by many layers of the media ecosystem.

Today it’s the opposite – we have such easy and direct access to information that it’s time, focus and attention that are scarce. Because our attention is limited and we are bombarded with shiny things on the internet to look at (and of course, share), news organizations need to hoot, scream and holler to get and, more importantly, hold our attention.

I was hoping that our leaders would rise to their test during this impeachment trial but I fear this will not be the case, they will vote in their own self-interest, circling the wagons to protect themselves. It will be up to us, the public citizens, to seek out facts and the truth and hold our leaders accountable.

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SmartNews Jobs

In case you missed it, SmartNews had a big round of funding last year which we are using to staff up positions here in the United States. While we’ve always had openings for machine learning engineers (doesn’t everyone?) we now are also staffing up in Product, Marketing, and Biz Dev.

If you’re interested in learning more about any of these roles, let me know!

San Francisco

Product – Business Intelligence Analyst

Product – Design Manager

Product – Data Scientist

Marketing – Senior Partnerships Manager

Engineering – Staff Software Engineer, System Generalist

NYC

Media BD – Partner Relations, Business Development Associate

More positions including openings in Engineering and in our Tokyo office posted here.

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Invisible Filter Bubbles

This did not occur to me. As an algorithm gets better at recommending content that matches and reinforces what a community is looking for, the negative complaints go down which makes it harder for someone outside (such as platform moderators) the filter bubble from detecting these closed communities in the first place.

The algorithm is doing what it was designed to do but without any moral compass, its overall contribution to society is questionable.

Here’s someone who worked on the YouTube algorithm commenting on this (emphasis mine).

Using recommendation algorithms, YouTube’s AI is designed to increase the time that people spend online. Those algorithms track and measure the previous viewing habits of the user—and users like them—to find and recommend other videos that they will engage with.

In the case of the pedophile scandal, YouTube’s AI was actively recommending suggestive videos of children to users who were most likely to engage with those videos. The stronger the AI becomes—that is, the more data it has—the more efficient it will become at recommending specific user-targeted content.

Here’s where it gets dangerous: As the AI improves, it will be able to more precisely predict who is interested in this content; thus, it’s also less likely to recommend such content to those who aren’t. At that stage, problems with the algorithm become exponentially harder to notice, as content is unlikely to be flagged or reported. In the case of the pedophilia recommendation chain, YouTube should be grateful to the user who found and exposed it. Without him, the cycle could have continued for years.

The Toxic Potential of YouTube’s Feedback Loop
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Distribution without tears

Written somewhere over Kansas on the way to WordCamp for Publishers. Please look me up if you want to chat about this post.

This is a shameless pitch for a plugin to WordPress my company just published but there are also broader ideas proposed here and I would love your feedback.

SmartNews is a mobile news aggregation app. The backend tech is pretty nifty. It uses machine learning and what we call a “discovery algorithm” to expose users to new points of view that they might not see if they are using a social network or personalized news service to read their news. You can read more about that stuff here, that’s not what this blog post is about.

SmartNews aggregates news from our partners. If we have no news, we have nothing for our users to read. While it’s possible to crawl the web and pull in stories as we find them on the open web, we would prefer a relationship with each of our publishing partners so they send us their articles and feel in control of how their content is used by SmartNews. We want our partners to feel as if the SmartNews app is an extension of their CMS. If our partners are not successful, neither will SmartNews.

While we do send traffic to our publishers (lots of it) that’s not the only benefit we offer. We have architected the product to offer a snappier, native view (think of Safari or Chrome’s reader mode) of the articles. Because this view is hosted on our app, our users can read while offline. The SmartView page in SmartNews was designed to serve the subway commuter in Tokyo where signals were spotty.

But we wanted to make sure publishers had a benefit when readers chose to read their articles via the SmartView page. Thus the SmartFormat feed spec was born. SmartFormat is a simple variant of the RSS standard with a couple new elements to provide greater portability of not only a publisher’s articles but also their advertising and analytics.

The <snf:advertisement> element lets publishers provide an ad tag which we run on the SmartView page. Because this is the publisher’s ad tag, the publisher keeps 100% of the revenue.

The <snf:analytics> element lets the publisher send along the analytics bug so they can include SmartView pageviews in the total pageviews that they see on their dashboard.

Combined, both the <snf:advertisment> and <snf:analytics> allow for portability of not only content but also advertising. Now when a publisher distributes a full text feed to SmartNews they also are distributing the monetization and analtyics footprint as well. While other platforms require you to opt in to revenue shares on the platform’s advertising and analytics, SmartNews lets you use and optimize your own, dynamically, on a feed endpoint you control.

Now to the fun part. If you’re running on WordPress, we have a simple plugin that will open up two text boxes, one for and one for and will build a SmartFormat feed compliant with the SmartFormat feed spec. In order to get distribution on SmartNews, all you have to do is apply to be a publisher on SmartNews, install the plug-in, then you’re ready to go!

Settings page of SmartNews SmartFormat plugin

As for the broader proposal, I was curious (and I could very well be looking in the wrong places) why no one has attempted to extend RSS in this way before? Feedburner had something where they injected Google Ads into their RSS feeds but it never really took off because those ads only ran in the feed or feedreader, not on the downstream aggregation sites or platforms. As much as I am loath to try and extend a standard, wouldn’t it benefit publishers to have a place where they can add their ad tag, analytics scripts, and even subscription CTAs so that the business travels along with the editorial?

<snf:advertisement> and <snf:analytics> work great for SmartNews but what about extending it for others? The more platforms that accept this extended feed, the more incentive there is for publishers to create these feeds. Seems like the classic win-win all around. Besides the bureaucratic lift of trying to extend a “standard” such as RSS am I missing something?

NOTE: The SmartFormat plugin for WordPress is available for download on wordpress.org.

Thanks to @MrYhira for the inspiration for this plugin.

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Reminds me of something

A team from Vice News flew to Huawei headquarters in China at the invitation of the company. It was clearly a PR junket. Huawei has been accused of copying Apple before and after seeing the video of their company store, I can see that they have a point.

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Algorithms don’t get humor

April Fool’s Day is always a busy day at SmartNews as our news discovery algorithm get overly excited with all the cool, interesting and unique news released that day. Here’s a running log of what we’ve had to gently remind the algorithm is actually just a joke.

Hope you had a good April Fools.

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Elizabeth Holmes – The Inventor

After watching the HBO documentary about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, I’m all in everything about how she pulled the wool over so many eyes and got so many people (mostly older men points out my wife) to hand over their wallets. It’s a cautionary tale for the fast & loose culture of Silicon Valley that is starting to bump up against more traditional and heavily regulated industries such as medicine, banking, and transportation. Think of CRISPR, cryptocurrency, Space-X and Tesla as examples of projects that need to take extra care as they innovate so as not to lose the public’s trust.

Here’s my reading list: