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The third edition of Build The News, a two-day hackathon organised by The Times and Sunday Times, took place last weekend at the News UK offices in London. Around a hundred talented developers and student journalists brought innovative ideas and prototypes to the table, competing for both the student and staff categories.

The three topics proposed by the organisers before the event were: interaction – if news organisations are getting rid of comments, how can readers be engaged?; social sources – how to ensure UGC is fairly credited; and context – how to explain to readers the wider situation and context around a certain story.

Participating teams tackled not only these categories, but many others. Here are five ideas developed and presented at Build The News:

Interactive Debate

May's General Election is fast approaching and news organisations are looking for creative and interactive ways of engaging their audiences. The hackathon’s winning team developed a tool that can be easily applied to this particular event, but also to other types of video interviews.

Once given a video, the system generates a transcription, identifies the speakers and provides a written summary of the keywords and main topics discussed. Interactive Debate also uses natural language processing and sentiment analysis software to identify the emotional charge of the participants.

The tool can also serve journalists by providing an analytics dashboard of viewers’ engagement with the content, from most viewed to most shared or commented on.

interactive debate
Screengrab from Interactive Debate

“I have a long-standing interest in working with transcriptions”, said Pietro Passarelli, one of the team members and current MSc Computer Science student at University College London. “Having worked in the media industry on broadcast documentaries, I am always considering ways in which to make the process easier, faster and more insightful”.

The team took inspiration from The New York Times Innovation Report, which advised interactive projects should consider a more sustainable approach in terms of structure for content to be reusable.

SoundOff

The runner-up prize at Build The News was claimed by SoundOff, a concept developed by a group of students from City University.

As an increasing number of publications are moving away from online comments and towards social media discussion, the team built an engaging prototype which enables readers to record and leave audio comments on certain parts of articles online.

These are displayed accordingly in a column alongside the text, but the innovative feature is the ranking system – comments would be ranked by their Facebook proximity to the reader, depending on how “closely” the commenter and the reader know each other. SoundOff also offers a voting system, so that comments from unknown users can be voted up or down.

“We think it would make comment sections a much less toxic place to be”, said Sam Walsh, a student on the MA Interactive Journalism program. The team’s developer, Rishi Chavda, a first year Computer Science at City University, built the SoundOff prototype using a JavaScript library called RecorderJS.

CastList

A Google Chrome extension that allows readers to keep track of who’s who in news stories, CastList works by scanning the content of an article and automatically picking out the names in it.

The software pulls a photo and biography from Wikipedia, presented to readers as an in-article pop-up window when the names are clicked, although news outlets can provide a customised version if preferred.

CASTLIST
Screengrab of CastList

The trio came up with the idea after drawing from their own experience with reading news articles, particularly longer or ongoing stories.

"We kept coming back to how hard it is to keep track of all the politicians, rebel groups or organisations that get mentioned," said Elliot Davies, a student at University of St Andrews. "CastList would alleviate the problem by ensuring the reader could look up anyone that is mentioned and would also remove the burden from the news organisation itself," he added.

SitRep

SitRep, developed by participants from London Student, allows journalists to reach out to their newsrooms quickly in an emergency situation.

The idea was developed to work primarily on older phone models or in areas of low connectivity, and lets journalists use SMS or phone calls to quickly notify their newsroom of a dangerous situation.

The phones would communicate with SitRep via Twilio, a service which enables software developers to make and receive phone calls and texts using its web service. In situations where smartphones are available, the SitRep app would expand its functions to include location tracking and video or audio messaging.

If a journalist is in danger they can send 'amber' or 'red' alerts through SitRep via their speed dial, or short SMS messages with pre-agreed codes to give more information.

The data provided by the service can also be integrated into a platform campaigning for the safety of journalists worldwide and an interactive map will show ‘heat spots’ where journalists find themselves facing the highest risk.

Jargon Buster

Reading articles that contain unknown words or complicated terms, particularly in business coverage, can sometimes mean having to look words up or refer to other sources.

Competing in the staff category at Build The News, the Wall Street Journal team built Jargon Buster, a Google Chrome plug-in that would facilitate users’ understanding of such terms without interrupting the reading experience.

The tool works by highlighting a certain set of technical phrases in an article that, when clicked, reveal a concise definition below the paragraph.

Jargon Buster
Screengrab from Jargon Buster

Jargon Buster was developed using Google Sheets as a backend for the dictionary – enabling editors to update the database by adding new terms in a matter of seconds. The idea behind the project is to help make specialist subjects more approachable to readers.

Disclosure: The author of this article took part in the Build The News hackathon alongside four MEng Computer Science students from Bristol University. Team Byline developed Stampede, a plug-in which displays live Twitter cards alongside articles on a publisher’s website. The tool enables direct replies and re-tweets, as well as tweets about individual paragraphs of an article with the purpose of maintaining traffic and user interaction within the news organisation’s website.

Update: This article has been updated to show the SitRep app was developed by participants from London Student, not from City University as previously stated.

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