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BeaverCountian.com has been working exhaustively behind-the-scenes at developing innovative new ways to gather and report hyperlocal news, and has now begun beta testing the first results of those efforts.
The development process began last year, after we started working to expand our coverage of local municipal governments — places where many of the decisions that impact taxpayers the most are made.
It has proven to be a major undertaking.
Beaver County is home to 52 municipal governments, 16 school districts, and a county government with hundreds of employees. Each of these governing bodies pass budgets and set tax rates, and each vote on an untold number of other resolutions which affect your personal finances and daily lives.
Most of these boards and councils hold multiple public meetings each month to conduct official business. This does not begin to mention all of the quasi-governmental agencies, such as water & sewage authorities, which meet to make decisions that determine how critical resources are provided to your home, and what your costs for those services will be.
Many of the towns in Beaver County have just a couple of thousand people living in them, some have just a couple of hundred… a few have even less. Dedicating the resources it would take to keep these citizens informed about their local governments has simply not been logistically or economically possible for us.
Each day, Beaver County’s multitude of police departments, fire departments, and ambulance services respond to hundreds of incidents and calls for help. Then there are the tens-of-thousands of court proceedings that occur in the county’s courthouse and magisterial district offices each year.
BeaverCountian.com has been reporting about happenings in the area for over eight years now. While our investigative work regularly uncovers major local stories of such significance they make regional, national, or even international news, our ability to keep you informed about what is actually happening around you has been extremely limited.
At the same time, the ability of other news organizations to keep you informed continues to shrink. The harsh economic realities of an evolving news business are hitting close to home.
BeaverCountian.com began working hard last year at developing ways to tackle the challenges of providing hyperlocal coverage. After a considerable amount of work, and with the help of some very skilled people, we now believe we are well on our way to revolutionizing how local news is gathered and reported.
We realize this is a significant claim to make.
Mass data collection and warehousing, natural language processing, machine learning and artificial intelligence; these are phrases often heard in connection with activities undertaken by national intelligence agencies. BeaverCountian.com intends to rely on some of these same technologies and techniques to increase the “situational awareness” of the everyday citizen in Beaver County.
We have been working diligently with hardware manufacturers and software developers, fighting for access to public data and records on both the local and state level, and have been spending a lot of time thinking about what might be possible for a truly modern “local newspaper.”
For example, BeaverCountian.com has already been gathering and analyzing data on hundreds of emergency calls made to every police, fire, and ambulance service in the county each day. We’ve been developing algorithms to automatically search through those calls to begin locating ones that may be newsworthy.
A 911 call about “shots fired” could be a tragic event with a deadly outcome, or it could be some well-intentioned citizen calling for police after confusing fireworks with gunshots. Our systems are examining related data, such as looking to see if an ambulance was called to the location and taking into account how long police were on-scene, to determine if the call might be significant before flagging it for a reporter to start investigating.
As another example, we are cross-referencing that very same information with databases we maintain of every elected official in every town in the county — if emergency services of any kind are called to a governmental official’s home, our systems will notify us about it. This does not mean every such call is newsworthy enough to warrant an article, the vast majority of them will not be. But in an imagined example scenario, it does mean we would not have to rely on law enforcement sources to tell us about a pattern of domestic violence calls to a councilman’s home.
The technologies are complicated, the endeavor is financially challenging, and the ideas we are seeking to implement are experimental for a news organization of any size, yet alone one as small as ours. But we believe our vision is sound and our goal achievable. That being said, there are a lot of major hurdles ahead in both developing and deploying these technologies, and with gaining greater access to the underlying public records and information that will be needed to fuel such a news engine.
While we are already pulling in large amounts of data from a number of different sources, we recognize that we will still need boots on the ground to manually gather information that would otherwise not be available to us.
In the last three months, BeaverCountian.com has already recorded more than 50 public meetings from municipalities and school districts across Beaver County. We hope to soon be able to record that same number of meetings in one month’s time.
We have for now simply been publishing those videos for all of our interested readers to watch. But we have also been privately experimenting with using those recordings in far more interesting ways. Transcriptions are automatically generated containing virtually every word spoken at these public meetings, and we are working to create an automated analysis of these conversations by cross-referenced them with the other information we are gathering. While such natural language processing is far from perfect, and we certainly have a long way to go with the machine learning we are trying to implement, we have already in tests been able to identify trends across the county that may be worthy of a look by experienced reporters.
We will continue to work with our network of confidential sources, uncovering more of the waste, mismanagement, public corruption and organized crime that has plagued Beaver County for far too long. We will continue to have gifted journalists tell compelling stories of triumphs and tragedies. But those efforts will soon be bolstered with expanded coverage made possible through these innovative new applications of technology.
Since you have made it all the way down to the bottom of this article (congrats on that), we invite you to take a look at our developmental community dashboard for the City of Aliquippa (each municipality in the county will eventually have a dashboard of its own). While it has not been launched and is still very much under active development, this example dashboard will provide you with an opportunity to follow along as we begin testing out some of our ideas.
Please be sure to let us know what you think as our work progresses. Your feedback is going to be an important part of this process.
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