Wiener Dateng'schichten

APA writes Vienna data stories

What began in the EU elections last year under the name Automated Content was expanded sentence by sentence in the months subsequent. APA's project is now receiving new momentum through funding from the Vienna Media Initiative. APA is a pioneer in journalistic automation processes and to date is the only provider on the Austrian market for automated content solutions for journalistic purposes.

Whether election results, population age structure, changes in temperature or climate, percentage of green areas, overnight stays, kindergarten places and much more: public organisations collect enormous quantities of statistical data. Currently, a large portion of this data is not textually developed or is insufficiently so. This is due less to a lack of interest than to a shortage of time to produce these texts. “Editorial offices generally do not have the resources to journalistically process all of the available data, which is one of the reasons why many stories are not being written. Content automation is aimed at generating new content, whose journalistic creation has not been possible on this scale up till now,“ says Katharina Schell of APA’s editorial board and director of APA’s Automated Content project, which was begun last year. The fact that human performance should not be underestimated by any means has been known since the initial attempts at automation, for when reporting on the National Council and EU elections last year, APA had already gathered extensive expertise with automatically generated texts.

Funding through the Vienna Media Initiative

Established in 2019, the City of Vienna’s funding programme “Vienna Media Initiative“ has come at just the right time. Since November, 23 out of 47 submitted projects focusing on high-quality journalism have received support, among them the Vienna Data Stories.

From big data to local content

Although the algorithms are generally launched in areas such as sports, finance, economy, and perhaps also weather and elections, in its thematic range the City of Vienna’s statistical data is an optimal area of activity. “It covers numerous aspects of daily life in the city, which means entirely new approaches to data storytelling can be developed and realistic stories can be generated in real time,“ Schell points out. For who knows what the most common species of tree in Donaustadt is, or how many dogs live in Mariahilf and how much space each of them has in relation to the area of the district? Whether the heat in the increasingly hotter summers is still normal and how many drinking fountains in the neighbourhoods are available to cool off is also of considerable regional relevance. This is all collected by the City of Vienna and can be found as tables in extracts in the Statistical Yearbook and individual brochures and in various formats in the internet. Developers and data journalists at APA’s editorial office optimise this for journalistic use, write rule-based templates and can create area-specific stories with it at the press of a button. The media as well as local authorities, municipal service providers and other public institutions can obtain these texts from APA and provide citizens with regional, hyperlocal and new information on areas that pertain directly to their lives. The Vienna Data Stories project launches in October 2020.

Strategic flagship project

For an independent news agency such as APA, which also sees its role as a service provider and enabler for the Austrian media and communications industry and has positioned itself at the interface of content and technology, the Vienna Data Stories integrate perfectly into company strategy. This is one of the reasons it is such a pleasure to be able to focus on this subject more intensively. APA CEO Clemens Pig sees “Viennese Data Stories as another concrete example of the competence in the use of data and artificial intelligence in the APA newsroom,“ and with it, APA can add another building block to innovative, customised content services for a digitised media industry.

For APA Editor-in-Chief Johannes Bruckenberger, too, the funding from the Vienna Media Initiative is “an important step for the future field of automated journalism at APA. Our editorial team already broke new journalistic ground last year with automated content on elections. Now we can use this new dimension of data journalism to develop further relevant local stories that are highly useful for both media enterprises and users.“

Journalistic quality standards

Katharina Schell is responsible for editorial innovation on the APA editorial board and also represents the editorial team at APA-medialab, APA-Austrian Press Agency’s innovation unit. She is familiar with the needs of editorial offices and knows precisely what complex algorithms require for fluid formulation. It is also the journalistic background that makes APA particularly predestined for projects of this kind. That is because journalistic standards of quality such as source reliability, plausibility checks, transparency and the principle of dual control must be ensured despite the automated process. This applies not only to checking the correct data situation but also, for example, to transparency notices indicating the information is generated automatically.