Students win contest with app to uncover underreported stories

A new mobile app created by University of Missouri sophomores aims to harness the power of artificial intelligence to help the news media cover underreported stories.

Informator, an intelligent search application, was created to tackle the problem of important stories not receiving enough coverage. It does so by finding hidden relationships between words and topics that make the news. It can also help journalists bring more context to news stories, according to its creators.

Informator was created by the team of computer science majors Evan Teters and Chris Mitchell and journalism major Humera Lodhi. The team recently won the annual Reynolds Journalism Institute Student Competition at MU. 

Informator is a twist on a typical internet search engine. When a user searches for a word, the application returns a list of words closely correlated with the search term, ordered by degree of relevance. For example, entering the word “transgender” into the application returned the result “ACLU,” thus helping uncover an underreported story about the ACLU suing a Catholic hospital for denying surgery to a transgender man, Lodhi explained.

The app uncovers these relationships by using code that computes the most related and relevant words from all recent news stories. Journalists can then use their own judgement to decide which of the stories are underreported or worth more attention, Teters said.

The code works with the Aylien News API, which indexes content published by major news sources over the previous two months.

The team formed in October, Lodhi said, and their initial idea was to build a voice-based mind mapping software tool.

The idea for Informator came from thinking about how the news media often pushes the same kind of stories and takes the same approach to a given story, Lodhi said. As a journalism student, Lodhi said, she’s had a lot of discussions about the lack of context and complexity in a lot of news reporting. 

“Not portraying complexity leads to a lack of understanding,” Lodhi said. “Negative stereotypes are born from a lack of understanding.”

While Informator seeks to remedy that lack of understanding by helping journalists tell better stories, the application is not meant only for journalists, its creators said. Researchers and marketers are also among potential users, according to Lodhi. Marketers can use the app to conduct sentiment analysis of texts to determine how audiences react to various marketing strategies, she said, and researchers can use it to find connections between topics that have not received sufficient attention.

In general, the app can be used to see what connections people are drawing in their internet usage, making it potentially useful to political campaigns, she said.

The team produced and demonstrated a working application for the competition, but the app is not currently available for public download, Lodhi said.

The students are planning to make improvements by getting feedback from journalists and understanding how their experience correlates with the relevance score shown on the app, Teters said. The algorithm behind the app might be fine-tuned to get better performance if needed, he said.

For Lodhi, the motivation to participate in the student competition came from her interest in the intersection of technology and journalism.

“It was hard to go in with not much tech or app development experience,” she said. “But I felt a lot more comfortable by the end.”

Being able to meet and work with people from a different background and skillset was Lodhi’s favorite part of the experience. For Teters, team meetings with intense brainstorming were the highlight.

The annual student competition pairs up students from MU’s journalism and engineering schools to help solve problems facing journalism. This year’s competition was focused on mobile applications of artificial intelligence. Three other teams made the finals of the competition. The winners were announced April 25.

The Informator team will fly to the San Francisco Bay Area in late May to pitch the application to investors and tour technology and media companies located there.

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