Linked data and why the current approach to archives is “just not working” – David Caswell on Structured Stories

By Agustin Palacio

Structured Stories is a news database under construction which intends to empower everyone to collect, use and improve a permanent record of news events. Creator David Caswell wants to switch the current approach to archives, which “is just not working”, for “some form of structured information that can be networked.”

According to Caswell, adding value to the structured narrative could be a way to return to something similar to the economic mechanism of the 20th century: a distribution-based bundle.

And as for journalists? Caswell believes it could be a powerful tool:

“Journalists can collect, organise and publish news stories at much greater levels of detail than would be feasible with articles, and they can do that continually over long periods of time on large, long-term, sprawling stories.”

Finding routes to linked data

Structured Stories follows the line taken by other services that already exist such as Circa and Timeline App in terms of linked data, but with a twist.

In Structured Stories, events are ‘fully semantic’: they are built entirely from semantic elements, using the same ‘atoms’ that our brains use to interpret them.

The tool allows the user to select different agents, actions, places and other entities to edit before publishing the story on the database.

From A_Character_Began_A_New_Project to Campaign launched after hate crime increase in West Midland, we can see stories through different views, such as a timeline, or cards.


A story presented on Structured Stories can be viewed as part of a wider timeline


…And a story can also be viewed as an event.

Caswell says:

“Basing Structured Stories on these ‘semantic atoms’, rather than on text/image/quote atoms like Circa, ensures that all of the information within the event is available computationally.”

He is quite familiar with the News Storyline Ontology, a generic model for describing and organising the stories developed by the BBC in collaboration with The Guardian, Press Association and Ontoba. But he argues the two products are different:

“BBC Storyline is a little different, because it actually has the concept of a semantic event has a whole, but does not actually describe the semantics of the events.”

Fact-checking, evaluation and editorial judgement

On the ethical front the tool creates permanent artifacts that can be evaluated and corrected.

“It also enables fact-checking through journalistic events which are crisply defined and are uniquely identified with their own URLs on the Internet.

“Trusted editors can apply editorial judgment to Structured Stories much more quickly and at a much greater scale than they can to a series of text articles.”

There are links to source material for each individual journalistic event, showing where the article’s information comes from.

From a ‘push’ to a ‘pull’ experience

David Caswell

David Caswell, founder of Structured Stories

Structured Stories is a reaction to the two years Caswell worked on the news personalisation team at Yahoo!, and the decade working on data structures and geographic knowledge.

“Digital media has brought us many enormous advantages, but it has also brought us a lot of confusion.

“I think that one way to mitigate that confusion is, ironically, to put even more power in the hands of the news consumer, particularly by converting news from a ‘push’ experience into a ‘pull’ experience.

Too much digital news, he feels, passes the user by in the rush of information.

“By figuring out how to make news permanent, as an easily- understandable and ever-accumulating permanent resource, we can give more power to news consumers.”

Monetisation and next steps

Structured Stories is being tested through two reporting projects in development, both focused on local government stories.

The projects are based in Los Angeles and New York, scheduled to begin in June, with the resulting guidelines and data are expected to be published late in 2015. The official announcement of the NYC project came on April 24 [after this interview was conducted]. A basic iOS app is expected by the end of summer.

Technical issues are important, but editorial ones are too, says Caswell. If the editorial process proves to be a smooth one, he plans to increase his current team with two more journalists in 2016.

He would also like to develop some international non-English reporting projects in the future, if there are interested partners.

But he says he is not thinking much about monetisation right now, because the concept is still unproven.

“If this works then I think it would be important that newsrooms, in some form, own and control structured narrative platforms.

“The obvious possibilities for monetization would advertising, subscription, sponsored events and stories etc. A non-profit model might also work. But the format might also allow other revenue sources, like information services, editorial services and the like.”

Agustin Palacio is a student on the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University.

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