Cal Poly Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy’s Reporters Project Receives New Support to Build Statehouse Coverage System

Multidisciplinary collaboration between Cal Poly and University of Miami will use $200,000 Knight Foundation grant to create AI-driven wire service to expand coverage of state governments

Professors Lindsay Grace, left, of the University of Miami and Foaad Khosmood of Cal Poly are co-primary investigators for a grant that will allow artificial intelligence to aid statehouse reporting
SAN LUIS OBISPO — A $200,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is helping the Cal Poly Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy develop an artificial intelligence system that will strengthen news coverage of state and local governments.

Researchers aim to build a prototype news wire service — called AI For Reporters — in which narrative content covering state legislatures is automatically generated from primary data sources and can be distributed to local and regional news organizations for publication. The ambition is to empower hometown media to receive articles specifically covering the activities of their state representatives and issues of local/regional significance they currently lack because of limited reporting resources and/or being overlooked by traditional wire services.

“An informed citizenry is crucial to a healthy democracy, but the public is rapidly losing access to this type of information,” said Foaad Khosmood, primary investigator on the grant and a senior research fellow at the institute. “Our approach is to use semi-structured primary source data from state legislative proceedings in California and Florida to automatically generate quality, relevant and factual news content as a service to local news organizations.”

AI For Reporters is a multi-institutional collaboration between Cal Poly and the University of Miami’s School of Communications. Other strategic partners include Austria’s Graz University of Technology Institute of Interactive Systems and Data Science (ISDS) and Google.

“This project represents an unprecedented partnership between the engineering strength of Cal Poly and the journalism prowess of the University of Miami for the benefit of supporting state-level journalism,” added Lindsay Grace, Knight Chair at University of Miami and co-PI on the project.

The collaboration comes at a time when statehouse reporting is at an all-time low. According to a report by PEW Research Center, full-time newspaper newsroom staffing declined by 30% between 2003 through 2012, and less than one-third of U.S. newspapers assign any reporters — full- or part-time — to statehouses. The result is that the media — the primary entity the public relies on to monitor and report important issues — is no longer able to effectively serve this important function. 

As the watchdog function of the press is diminished, so too is the ability of a well-informed public to engage with and impact the decision-making process and outcomes of their government, researchers said.

The project is partnering with newsrooms to test and verify the solution.

“Among the exciting changes in media today are the new tools and technologies available for creative and compelling stories,” said David Lesher, editor and co-founder of CalMatters, a nonprofit, multimedia news organization based in Sacramento. “AI, in the hands of an experienced, independent journalist, can broaden a reporter’s sources for information and make stories more relevant to a specific audience.”

Paul Cheung, Knight Foundation director for journalism and technology innovation, said changes in the industry have resulted in fewer newspapers, news holes and reporters.

“Many local new organizations no longer have the necessary resources to cover state legislative hearings, press conferences and other state and municipal government proceedings,” said Cheung, whose Miami-based Knight Foundation is dedicated to fostering “informed and engaged communities” it believes are “essential for a healthy democracy.” “This collaboration will explore the viability of using AI as an alternative reporting tool for local news organizations to enhance coverage.”

Cal Poly Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy
Former state Senator Sam Blakeslee founded the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at Cal Poly in 2012. With a portfolio of experience as a scientist, business owner and legislator, his goal is to bring these diverse worlds together with cross-disciplinary thinkers at Cal Poly to solve some of the most complex public policy challenges facing society today. The institute’s mission is to develop and promote practical solutions to real-world problems by informing and driving public policy through advanced technology. Interdisciplinary teams of students, faculty, industry leaders and policy experts adept at removing barriers apply technology to craft practical yet transformative solutions ripe for implementation. For more on IATPP’s initiatives, visit https://iatpp.calpoly.edu/initiatives.

In photo at the top, professors Lindsay Grace, left, of the University of Miami and Foaad Khosmood of Cal Poly are co-primary investigators for a grant that will allow artificial intelligence to aid statehouse reporting.

Contacts:
Foaad Khosmood
Research Director, IATPP
foaad@calpoly.edu; 805-756-2911

Lindsay Grace
Knight Chair
University of Miami School of Communications
lgrace@miami.edu; 305-284-6902

February 12, 2020

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