Qatar-based team develops software that predicts popularity of news stories

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A Qatar Foundation-funded team has created software that aims to help media organizations around the world forecast how far their online news stories will go.

FAST (Forecast and Analytics of Social Media and Traffic) is the brainchild of the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), which has spent the past year working on the project in collaboration with the New Media team at Al Jazeera English.

FAST predicts the traffic that a news article will have in the first three days after publication, based on the visits and social media shares that it gathers in the first six hours after it’s posted online.

“FAST gathers lots of information every minute,” Dr. Carlos Castillo, senior scientist for QCRI’s Social Computing team, told Doha News. Collecting site visits, Facebook “likes” and tweets – not only the quantity, but the content – gives the team a sense of how engaged people are with the story, he added.

Many uses

Using Al Jazeera’s story archive, the FAST team – which includes scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and the US-based MIT Center for Civic Media – has also used past articles to model how future similar articles will perform. Castillo said:

“Our model is similar to what people working in insurance do when estimating the lifetime of a person – they take into account factors like whether you smoke, exercise, etc. We’re doing the same with different factors, like social media sharing, which point to the popularity of an article.”

The team behind FAST believe that the technology will provide editors and journalists a way to maximize their website hits, allowing them to make adjustments to stories which are not doing as well as they’d hoped, or to add more detail and follow-ups to popular stories.

However, they also accept that its use could prompt news websites to focus solely on stories that garner the most traffic, at the expense of editorial integrity and journalistic standards. Castillo said:

“This point goes deep into whether traffic is the ultimate goal of a news website. Some news organizations have said, yes, traffic is everything for us, and you can easily identify which websites have taken this route. Others have said, we serve our community and we have to be visible, but that’s not everything.

“If you focus entirely on popularity, the result could be catastrophic, with frivolous items which attract eyeballs, and not stories that work for the long-term reputation of an organization.”

Research continues

A demo of FAST is available for anyone to view and test. It shows Al Jazeera English stories that are currently online, pitting their total predicted views and likes against their current totals. 

Although the plan is to sell the software commercially further down the line, for now, the team is focused on discovering even more about the science of website analytics. 

“Our first step is to look for organizations who want to partner with us with trying to try to understand their traffic,” Castillo said.

“We’re a research organization, we want to understand it in a deeper way. At the moment we’re pretty sure of our predictions at six hours, but six hours is a long time for a newsroom. So we want to produce statistics more accurately, and earlier.”

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo by @aerial_m

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