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.

Building a "Build-A-Bot" Workshop

I've been playing a lot with bots lately, and recently had a great opportunity to help others play, too.

It was part of the Future.Today conference in New York City last month. Futurist and organizer Amy Webb planned deep discussions about artificial intelligence and human-machine interactions on the main stage. In a side room, she wanted to give the audience tactile bot experiences — and asked me to help. Could I create a "Build-A-Bot" workshop?

The idea was to get conference-goers building chatbots over lunch -- making them easily, without code, and in a way people could "take" their bots home to work on further.

We ended up making nearly 100.

Fast Company on WNYC's Storytelling Experiments

Fast Company writer John Paul Titlow did a great job capturing the spirit of experimentation at WNYC -- and me doing an ill-advised live demo on stage:

"Anyone who thinks old-school media can't be stealthy and innovative has never seen John Keefe text a room full of people from a command line on his laptop. But tonight, the senior editor for data news at WNYC—a public radio station founded in 1924—is showing off some things he built to help his colleagues tell stories."

Read the whole story here.

Alexa Baked in a Pi

You can put Alexa in a Raspberry Pi, and that is pretty cool.

Alexa is Amazon's intelligent agent, like Siri for your living room. Standing nearby, you speak to it with a question or a command, and it responds verbally.

Normally Alexa lives inside a $180 device called an Amazon Echo, or the new $50 Echo Dot. But Emily Withrow at Northwestern University's KnightLab told me it was possible to put the Alexa code inside a cheap Raspberry Pi hobby computer. And I happened to have an old Pi lying around.

So I gave it a whirl!

Now Available: Family Projects for Smart Objects!

It exists! I can't believe it!

My first book, Family Projects for Smart Objects: Tabletop Projects That Respond to Your World is in my hands. The Kindle edition is available now, and Amazon is taking preorders for the paperback edition that comes out September 24, 2016. 

It's a collection of 11 projects designed to introduce beginners to Arduinos, sensors and "internet of things" things. I tried to make it as accessible as possible, with clear instructions intended for girls, boys, women and men who have never done anything like this before.

The book grew out of my attempt to make something every week for a year (and blog about it).

Other fun facts:

  • I wrote much of it on my phone riding the NYC subway to work.
  • I promised myself I'd never write a book (thanks to Quinn Heraty for talking me into it).
  • It's published by the folks who make Make Magazine.

If you're into making and live in the NYC area, come out to the World Maker Faire October 1-2. I'll be there both days, demonstrating some projects and talking about the book!

"Family Projects for Smart Objects" at the World Maker Faire, NY Hall of Science:

Saturday, October 1, 2016 at 2:45 p.m. — Zone 3 Make: Show & Tell Stage

Sunday, October 2, 2016 at 11 a.m. — Zone 3 Make: Show & Tell Stage

C'mon out!



Tracking Harlem's Heat with Sensor Journalism

harlem_heat_ba_Credit-JohnKeefe-WNYC

How hot is a Harlem apartment?

We're trying to find out.

There are now DIY sensors in about 20 apartments, measuring the indoor heat and humidity -- in the middle of a heat wave.

It's the latest sensor journalism project from WNYC's Data News Team, in a collaboration with blog AdaptNY, community group WEACT and observation platform ISeeChange

And this week we worked with maker space HackManhattan, which hosted a soldering party to build more sensors.

Book Making: Done

Between the last post and this one, I made a book!

Family Projects for Smart Objects is a collection of 11 projects based on Arduino hobby computers. They’re DIY activities designed for beginners who want to learn about sensors and make “Internet of Things” things.

Or just make stuff with people you love.

The book is currently with a team of designers who are working to make it beautiful, useful and fun.

Game plan is to publish in time for the World Maker Faire in New York this fall. If you’d like a note when it’s published, just jump onto my mailing list.

Ridiculously, that’s not all I’ve been doing. More posts ahead about cool (and hot) things I’m exploring at work and on the side.