A bot now updates my Slack status

One of my closest collaborators is a teammate far away — I'm in New York and Emily Withrow is in Chicago.

We stay connected chatting on Slack. But recently Emily asked if I could regularly update my Slack status to indicate what I was doing at the moment, like coding, meeting, eating. It's the kind of thing colleagues in New York know just by glancing toward my desk.

Changing my Slack status isn't hard; remembering do it is. So I built a bot to change it for me.

New Kid on the Blockchain

UPDATED at 7:45 pm ET on 9/17/2018 with new information. See the end of the post for details.

It's my time to go crypto.

I've followed blockchain technology, principles and trends for years without getting involved, but now have couple of reasons to get real: A new blockchain-based journalism project is about to launch, and my employer, Quartz, just launched a new cryptocurrency newsletter.

It also seemed perfect for my practice of beginning new things repeatedly.

The inspiration

Earlier this year, friends Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant left their public radio jobs to join a new journalism … thing … called Civil. I had heard snippets about Civil, and started listening to Manoush's and Jen's podcast, ZigZag, part of which attempts to explain it.

After weeks of being pretty confused, I think I get it. Here's my attempt: Civil is a system designed to foster and reward quality journalism in a decentralized way, in contrast to platforms like Facebook and Google upon which so much journalism rests today.

The system’s backbone is the blockchain-based Civil token, abbreviated CVL. Holders of tokens can start news organizations in the system, challenge the membership of other news organizations in the system and/or cast votes when such challenges arise.

I have no idea if it will work. But I’m interested, and I’d rather participate than watch from the sidelines. So I’m willing to give it a whirl and okay with losing a little money in the process.

To participate, I just needed to buy some CVL ... though it turns out there's no just about it. But that's okay, too.

Beginning as a Practice

On a morning flight some years back, the pilot's cheerful voice came over the speakers.

"I'm glad you're flying with us. This is the first time I've flown a Boeing 747,” the captain said with a pause. “Today."

We all laughed, of course. Who’d want to be on a pilot’s maiden flight?!

Not us. We want experts. Society counts on them. Companies pay them better. Spectators watch them play. Vacationers rely on their forecasts. We attend educational institutions and work long hours to become them — the qualified, the trusted, the best.

Nobody likes being a beginner.

Except that I do.

Eyeo Festival Videos: Check them out

The Eyeo Festival just posted all of the videos from the 2018 festival, which is such a great service. Above is my talk on how we in the Quartz Bot Studio tell stories with conversational interfaces.

The festival had so many great speakers, and it's literally impossible to see them all live.

Here are some of my favorites I did see at the time, and highly recommend:

Check them out! 


Giving Better Weather to Alexa

Nearly every day, someone in our family asks Alexa for the day's weather. The default response is fine -- high temp, low temp, sun or rain.

But given our three nor'easters, intense wind chills, and high-wind days, that wasn't enough. How much rain? When will it start? How much snow? How cold will it feel?

We needed something better.

Fortunately the US National Weather Service does a fantastic job writing up little descriptions of what's in store for every spot in the country. It's been my go-to source for years. Could I get Alexa to say that?

Short answer: Yes, I could. And now you can add "Better Weather" to your Alexa, too. For free. (In the US only, for now.)

For a longer description of how I made it, read on. 

Heel, Rotson! My list of computer-generated dog names

Shadoopy. Dango. Ray-Bella. Figgie.

If I told you those were names of actual dogs in New York City, would you believe me?

They're not. They were generated by a machine-learning algorithm mimicking dog names after it "studied" a list of 81,542 dogs registered in NYC.

The experiment, which took just a few hours Saturday, was something I've wanted to try since I saw the playful, awesome work of Janelle Shane and her experiments using neural networks to generate paint colors, guinea pig names and Harry Potter fan fiction.

I happened to have some free time, and decided to give it a shot. Along the way I:

  • built, in mere minutes, a computer in the cloud powerful enough for machine learning
  • made and played with a recurrent neural network
  • learned a little more about machine learning
  • had a lot of fun

The program generated lots of names, including many that existed in the original data. Once I filtered those out, I had almost 400 computer-created, mostly plausible dog names. Here are some of my favorites:

Rotson
Dudly
Lenzy
Murta
Cookees
Geortie
Dewi
Chocobe
Sckrig
Booncy
Cramp
Dango
Ray-Bella
Santha
Coocoda
Satty
Bronz
Shadoopy
Mishtak
Figgie
Grimby
Phince
Bum-Charmo
Soma
Blant
Snowflatey

If you'd like to geek out about how I did this, read on. You can do it, too.

Qs and As About Bots for News

In my new job as a bot-maker and product manager at Quartz, I've been asked lots to share my thots about bots.

For a deep dive about conversational interfaces and what they mean to journalism (according to me), you can check out this Nieman Lab interview.

If you'd like a quicker scan, here are some questions and answers I prepared ahead of a panel about bots organized by the New York City chapter of the Online News Association. Here are those notes, and some links, too:


What should you consider before you start working on a bot?

  • You're entering uncharted territory! Have fun, explore, try new things.
  • There are no obvious places to find your bot. Bot makers talk about "discoverability" of bots, which is pretty problematic everywhere at this point.
  • So consider building where people already are interacting with you.
  • Make a "worker bee" bot that does a particular task well -- not a "know it all" bot like Siri or Alexa.
  • Is the information being exchanged sensitive? If so, think carefully. Making bots often means sending conversations through one or more 3rd-party services.
  • Play!

What are the specific design questions you need to keep in mind?

A New Role: Bots and Apps at Quartz

It's been an amazing run.

For nearly 16 years I've been at radio station WNYC, working with dedicated, talented people to inform New Yorkers every day and to help them navigate elections, blackouts, hurricanes and terror attacks.

Most recently I've helped mix code, design and reporting into new forms of journalism with brilliant colleagues on the WNYC Data News Team.

Along the way I've been tinkering with bots, chat systems and artificial intelligence. These explorations, together with my lifelong interest in journalism technology, have led me to a new role at Quartz.

I'll be building bots in the new Quartz Bot Studio and managing future iterations of Quartz's breakthrough iPhone and Android apps.

It's such an honor. I've been a fan of Quartz's executive editor and VP of product Zach Seward for many years, and I'm always impressed by how well Quartz crafts its site, newsletters, tools and apps to be super useful and exceptionally user-friendly. I feel so fortunate to be joining that team.

This all begins two weeks from today, which won't leave nearly enough time to get through my goodbyes and recount all of my memories at WNYC. But I'm excited about what's ahead, and I'll always be a listener and a member.