Category Archives: online journalism

Google’s creepy Allo assistant and our rocky relationship so far

After playing with Allo’s chat prompts for those too lazy to write their own texts, I began to play with the in-conversation Google Assistant bot. Here are the highlights:

1. You can use the assistant without giving it permission

Whereas other chat apps like Telegram and Facebook Messenger make it possible to interact with bots, Google is making bots central to Allo. Specifically, the Google Assistant.

When you first open the app you are introduced to the assistant. It wants to help, it says, but it will only do so if you agree to give it a whole bunch of creepy permissions. Until you give it those, it will not answer any questions directly.

I need certain permissions to help you. To get started click continue
But you can use the assistant without giving it those permissions. You just need to type ‘Google’ within a chat conversation with someone else, followed by what you want to do or know. It’s basically like talking to a friend, but with an over-eager colleague always listening in and trying to help.

2. But what it knows is creepy even when you leave permissions turned off

Map of N1 London

This isn’t actually where I was. Because I was using a coffee chain’s wifi hotspot the IP address placed me 120 miles south

3. It uses your IP address to work out your location


4. …But it’s more coy about its own location


5. It doesn’t know your name. Yet.



6. It doesn’t listen to you all the time



7. It’s happy to share your data with the authorities, but won’t share it with your friends



8. It’s only storing your data to make services better. Honest.


9. But it knows what ‘spying’ is


10. Allo thinks it’s creative


11. It is trying a little too hard to be your friend



12. Google Assistant knows enough context to give you relevant news


13. It can add games, jokes, poems, translation and other elements to chats


14. Google doesn’t know what Bing is


Hello Allo: the first 12 things I learned about Google’s new chat app


Google’s new chat app Allo is out in the UK, and I’ve been playing around with it.

There are two key artificial intelligence (AI) features that stick out in the app: firstly, the ability to interact with bots (the Google Assistant, which I’ve written about in a second post here), and secondly the way the app suggests responses while you chat.

I took screenshots during my first conversations using the app to see how the AI algorithms were set up before it had begun to learn much from my behaviour. Here are the highlights…

1. Allo assumes you are amused by everything

One of the most common responses suggested by Allo is ‘Haha’. Some triggers are more obvious, like ‘LOL’…



…whereas I’m not sure about others:

Yeah the BBC seem to be quite experimental. I'm surprised more haven't experimented - Haha

Perhaps ‘surprised’ is triggering the ‘Haha’ response here

Obviously all of your students should follow me on Twitter! - Haha / Exactly!

I’m guessing the exclamation mark prompts this ‘Haha’ suggestion. (And ‘obviously’ might be triggering ‘Exactly!’)

2. Allo wants you to be positive, yeah!

‘Yeah’ is the other most common suggested response.


3. This can lead to a conversation entirely made up of Google prompts

Yeah, Yeah, Haha

A ‘Yeah’ followed by a ‘Yeah’ triggers a ‘Haha’. Now the bot is talking with itself…

4. Allo knows the art of conversation is dead


No need to worry when someone starts a conversation: Allo can manage that for you

5. Questions only have 3 possible responses


6. If you’re not being clear Allo knows it

(And that) - What?

(And that) appears to be the fragment prompting a ‘What?’ response

7. …And it also knows if you’re being clear

Thats a screen grab of the setting screen - Gotcha / Ah, OK

‘That’s a…’ with more text prompts more confirmatory responses, perhaps.


8. …or uncertain

Now I don't know if that's you or google - Me neither

“I don’t know” appears to trigger a ‘Me neither’ response:

It's probably using a clever algorithm - Very true/ Yeah / Nope

…while “probably” appears to trigger three options.

I hope you've taken a screenshot of that - I don't / Yeah

The addition of ‘I hope’ might be prompting ‘I don’t’ and ‘Yeah’


“I thought” also seems to be picked up

9. But there’s only one response to certainty

But what I think they will do is make it one of the essential apps on Android - Right.

Perhaps “What I think” is the key phrase prompting ‘Right’ here.


10. Allo can understand emojis too (maybe)testing-smiley


11. Sometimes the only right response is ‘Oh’

I've tried to get people into Telegram but they won't shift

Does “I’ve tried” prompt ‘Oh’?

12. The assistant will butt in even when not invited

Will it be sunny tomorrow? - Weather tomorrow in Blackpool

In-conversation questions about the weather prompt the assistant to get involved

The Google Assistant bot is worthy of a whole post by itself, so I’ve written over here.

Have you had similar experiences – or am I speculating too widely? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.


Guardian profiles routinely link to PGP keys – why aren’t other news orgs doing this?


What a pleasant surprise to visit a profile page on The Guardian website and see a big, prominent link to the member of staff’s public key. Is this routine? It seems it is: an advanced search for profile pages mentioning “public key” brings up over 1000 results. Continue reading

FAQ: Cheap readers and the future of local news

Every so often a journalism student sends me questions for an assignment. I publish the answers here in the FAQ series. The latest set comes from a student in Australia, and focuses on the local press. 

1. Is the reader not worth as much on the internet?

Readers have always been worth different amounts in different contexts. It’s not that the reader is ‘not worth as much on the internet’, but that most readers on most websites are worth less. Continue reading

How to: fix spreadsheet dates that are in both US and UK formats


This map by Artem Karimov shows which countries use which data formats

It’s quite common when working with Google Sheets to have data set to US format (Month-Day-Year) without realising it. This is because Google will format your dates based on what ‘locale’ or language you have set – and the default is US English.

Instructions on how to change that are here – but what if it’s too late? What if you’ve already inputted or imported data which, when updated to a different format, will make it the wrong date? Continue reading

German intelligence reforms: will some journalists be more equal than others?

In a guest post for OJB, Christian Mihr explains how German plans to allow surveillance of foreign journalists represent a threat to reporters all over the world.

There is perhaps no author more quoted when it comes to surveillance than George Orwell, and his book 1984. The recently proposed reforms to Germany‘s Foreign Intelligence Service, BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst), however, bear more resemblance to Orwell’s novel Animal Farm.

In the novel, farm animals drive their human masters away in hope of achieving democracy. But once the pigs of the farm seize power they become as tyrannical as the humans that came before them, proclaiming:

“All animals are equal – but some animals are more equal than others.”

Some journalists are more equal than others

Politicians are of course not pigs; however, this single principle of the pigs in Animal Farm seems to be the underlying assumption which led the German-ruling parties SPD and CDU/CSU (Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists) to draft the new BND law, proposed at the end of June to the German public.

In the law, those more equal than others are not pigs, but rather German journalists. Continue reading

Snapchat Memories is nothing to do with memories – but it changes everything

Snapchat memories

Swipe up from the camera screen to access Snapchat Memories, then tap the camera roll option

Snapchat’s new Memories feature is being pitched as a way to share old snaps and stories — but the real change is what it means for those creating and reporting stories in the tool. Now for the first time Snapchat users can create non-chronological sequences and stories using images or video that they have not taken themselves. Continue reading