Silobreaker: Making meaning out of news via the semantic web

From the perspective of people who need news, the real point of the news isn’t merely to discover what’s happening. Rather, it is about discerning what it all might mean — especially, to YOU!

And in an age of information overload, the challenge for journalists is no longer just to provide more news content. Rather, our value lies in supporting relevance, insight, and (ultimately) meaning.

This is why, lately, I’ve been intrigued by Silobreaker. This Europe-based news aggregator site uses semantic web technology (Including visual interfaces) to make news more relevant — and thus, more compelling and useful.

This is pretty important because, since relevance has inherent value, it can be the basis of business models…

WHAT’S THE SEMANTIC WEB, AND WHY SHOULD JOURNOS CARE?

The semantic web is a set of technologies that help computers interpret meaning more like how humans do it. This can make various computer technologies (especially search) far more efficient and effective. It makes it easier for computers to get to the point in ways that people understand and value.

As this semantic web tutorial explains:

“The semantic web is not about links between web pages. It describes relationships between things (like A is a part of B, and Y is a member of Z) and the properties of things (like size, weight, age, and price).”

…Apply that logic to news, and you approach what most news consumers try to do, with varying degrees of success, in their own heads. News consumers constantly try to create meaning by “connecting the dots” between a dizzying array of often-conflicting stories from a multitude of venues — and then relate those patterns to their own lives and interests.

They do this in order to form opinions and make decisions — which from their perspective is the whole point of news!

WARNING: SILOBREAKER IS REALLY GEEKY

I’ll tell you up front: Silobreaker is geeky. Its user interface can be confusing and frustrating. It’s often not easy to understand what the site is saying, or why.

That said, it’s still well worth exploring — mainly because of its search tools. These visually portray the potential relevance of current news topics. This can prove valuable to journalists, as well as to analysts and regular people.

For instance, let’s say I’m a Hispanic parent who cares about my children’s future prospects — so I’m very interested in education, and what educational opportunities or pitfalls may affect my kids. I start my Silobreaker exploration of this topic by conducting a “360-degree search” for stories that connect these topics: Hispanics and education. This provides a fairly conventional news aggregator-style overview of air pollution-related news, superficially not too different from what you’d get from Google News.

But for more insight into what’s happening in this field, I glance at the right-hand sidebar. In the top chart there, “article volume,” I see that starting in early October coverage of this intersection of topics picked up sharply, but has since subsided somewhat (although not completely). This clues me in that this field heated up for a bit. That’s useful context if I haven’t been monitoring this field regularly.

Scrolling down further in the right sidebar, I see a box for “network search.” I double-click that box to display a large diagram showing how the issues I named, plus many others selected by Silobreaker as relevant, currently relate to each other in detail.

The network view allows me to literally see how issues connect. The value of this is serendipity potential. I notice that one of the related topics is “higher education” — and I have two teenagers, so that gets my attention.

I double-click the “higher education” node to make it the focus of this diagram. The resulting diagram shows me how topics, companies, people, organizations, and places currently relate to each other in this complex field. More importantly, clicking on a blue dot on any connecting line tells me why Silobreaker thinks those issues are connected (articles, blog posts, etc.)

I find the network search especially fascinating — even though, to be honest, I’m not quite clear on how it works or what it’s telling me. But I do know that it has helped me to better understand interrelationships and how they evolve — something that’s hard to get at just by reading conventional news stories. So it’s well worth spending a few minutes clicking on topics and playing with the sliders in Silobreaker’s network view. Allow the diagram to rearrange itself around your selections. See if you spot interesting relationships you hadn’t noticed before.

SO WHAT?

Silobreaker offers the most obvious potential for people who need news. But for news professionals, still greater value lies here in being able to spot possible stories and angles before they become obvious. If you know what interests your community, and can express that in keywords or topics, then Silobreaker can show you what’s happening now that might be relevant.

This kind of tool can help create and shape stories, as well as tell them.

Silobreaker offers other visually interesting tools worth exploring. Each offers some advantages and frustrations. Expect clunkiness and confusion, but also some Aha! moments. Think of this site as an early prototype for a news business based on relevance. Where could we go from here?

(NOTE: I originally published an earlier version of this article on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

3 thoughts on Silobreaker: Making meaning out of news via the semantic web

  1. Pingback:   What could news look like? Cool visual tools — contentious.com

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