Journalist and entrepreneur develops analytics platform to give companies confidence when crowd-sourcing news from social media feeds.
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In their endless pursuit of breaking news and trends, many media organizations have turned to social media. Publishers place top tweets on their homepages, and Twitter's own homepage includes, without editorial comment, a "Trends" column that shows the top terms, phrases and hashtags used by its 200 million+ active users.
But there's a fundamental problem with using social media this way: How do you know which stories and trends are real?
Melinda Wittstock, founder and CEO of NewsiT, thinks she has a solution. "Our platform is mobile and social in nature," Wittstock told InformationWeek in a phone interview. "It not only crowd-sources contextual content from social sources, it verifies it for relevance, impact, sentiment and reliability/veracity."
On its blog, the company describes what it does: "NewsiT helps media, publishers and anyone in need of accurate, contextual content and trusted social connection. The platform crowd-sources user-generated content and verifies it in real-time for relevance and reliability with powerful algorithms, rating and reputation-scoring processes."
Wittstock is no newcomer to the information-gathering process. She was a business reporter and then media correspondent of the Times of London, then anchored and produced for BBC World TV, Financial Times/CNBC Europe and ABC World News Now, among others. Her first company, Capitol News Connection, supplied public radio stations, TV outlets and newspapers with localized news from Congress.
NewsiT uses a variety of algorithms to mine the "Twitter firehose" in real time, finding relevant tweets that, for instance, match a phrase, hashtag, handle, geolocation or sentiment. NewsiT then filters out repetition and noise, leaving a smaller set of content that can be subjected to what Wittstock described as "a process of weighting according to the reputation of its source" -- a process Wittstock says will get more and more sophisticated and accurate over time.
Although many media companies aspire to use social media as a data input, most are using it at a very rudimentary level, according to Frank J. Cutitta, founder and CEO of The Center for Global Branding, a consultancy specializing in global branding issues.
Cutitta's current research project, "Weapons of Mass Discussion: Enterprise Social Media and the New CIO/CMO and Data Science Alliance," will cover key issues and challenges in IT's evolving relationship with emerging social and conversational media platforms. "Very little of what I've seen has been algorithmic," he told InformationWeek in a phone interview.
Cutitta also questioned how many media companies will need the kind of real-time verification and analysis NewsiT plans to offer. "A lot of other media sectors are lumbering along [digesting some social media feeds for and turning it into editorial insight, trending and editorial direction]," he said. "These companies don't have a strong case for immediate verification."
But Wittstock said media and content companies were only one of her target markets. Other potential customers include consumer brands, advocacy organizations and financial companies. "As financial markets open to social as a source, if millions of dollars can be made or lost on a tweet, you need to be able to do [a NewsiT-like analysis of accuracy and validity] in real time," Wittstock pointed out.
(Indeed, just a few days after I spoke with Wittstock, hackers compromised Twitter accounts of The Associated Press, sending out a false tweet about an attack on the White House that had injured President Obama. Stock trading systems read the "news" and reacted nearly instantaneously, causing The Dow Jones industrial average to plummet more than 150 points before recovering.)
Regarding the impact of services like NewsiT on journalism, Wittstock was upbeat. "This is an aid, not a competitor," she said, adding that reporters will be able to catch stories before they break out. "It can take some labor-intensity out of the news-gathering process, but it doesn't take away from journalism; it enhances it," she said.
NewsiT, currently angel-funded but with plans for Series A financing, is in its first customer trials and hopes to sell its first platform license later this year.
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