Leading the revolution

Features Posted 17/03/15
Anthony Sheehan made a name for himself covering saddam hussein’s Gulf war rant. Now he is inspiring his own revolution – in local news.

Anthony Sheehan has a pretty well-developed sense of what makes news; he is particularly proud of having picked out the most memorable line from a rambling speech by Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein on the eve of the first Gulf War in 1991. “I was working on what was then the BBC’s new rolling news programme and monitoring this mostly-unintelligible rant,” he recalled. “I was probably the only person who ever listened to the whole speech and I was struggling to make any sense of it when I heard him refer to “the mother of all battles”.

Anthony took the line as the hook for the BBC’s story on the dictator’s speech and watched it quickly enter the news lexicon as the newest adjective to describe any major event.

Today the company he set up at the Sussex Innovation Centre on the University of Sussex campus just outside Brighton is inspiring a news revolution of its own, albeit more peacefully.

NearYouNow helps publishers deliver relevant news content to readers depending on their location, an idea that sounds simple but which has required a great deal of research into natural language processing to make sure local, relevant and timely stories are selected.

“While the whole world wanted to know about Saddam’s plans, local people also want to know about local issues, by which I mean within a few miles, not their county or region,” Anthony commented.

“NearYouNow” allows publishers to give their readers the main news stories of the day at the top of the page but then give them four or five hyper-local stories from their neighbourhood as well.

The app is specifically aimed at smartphone and tablet users because that is how increasing numbers of us are accessing news these days. “On a desktop web page you can drill down to get to your area, but on a phone that gets far too messy; ‘nested’ menus just don’t work,” explained Anthony.

And when Anthony refers to local news, he means just that. “The BBC offers some localised information – weather for instance – but generally they don’t go more local than the county, which hardly creates a neighbourhood feel. “For a person living in Oxted, for instance, that would mean looking through the separate pages for Kent, Surrey and Sussex to find two or three relevant stories.”

With NearYouNow, a reader in Oxted would see relevant local stories from multiple sources and counties.

The other benefit of using NearYouNow is that the app can go beyond simply shuffling the most local content from the publisher’s existing site. “We can also take information from other local websites, RSS feeds, open source networks, blogs and anything else that would be of interest to a reader at that location,” Anthony explained.

“We have carried out a great deal of research and taken information from user groups and panels and we know that local news is important, not just because of the ‘get me home if the road is blocked’ scenario but because it is the ‘social glue’ that keeps communities together.”

Media giant Archant is the first major publisher to have joined forces with NearYouNow and is including the facility in its London24 online news service.

“Everyone who accesses London24 on a mobile and agrees that they would like the free service gets the top London stories plus a local selection that we draw automatically from about 30 different publications and blogs,” explained Anthony. “Whether you are in Islington or Ilford, you will get relevant local stories which our software selects from all those available, based on proximity, newsworthiness and time. The stories come not just from Archant’s own 16 London papers but from many other sources.

“By local, we mean within two or three miles. It’s like offering a dedicated news editor for every reader, and if we add in open data we can tell them how full the local car parks are, what the air quality is like or how well your neighbourhood scores for recycling efficiency.”

NearYouNow is talking to a publisher in the Midlands about rolling out the service there and has also picked up a lot of interest in the States, where Anthony has found “a great appetite” for local news. San Antonio and Detroit are expected to be the first areas to pilot the system across the pond.

There is a clear commercial opportunity on offer to publishers who increasingly want to be able to offer advertisers the chance to talk to a local audience, something which Anthony believes tends to be less intrusive as it becomes more local. “Ads can be irritating, but if you see that your local pub is running a special promotion you are likely to treat it more like local information than advertising. That’s why publishers like what we are doing and the opportunities it creates.”

After his spell as a journalist, Anthony studied for a degree in computer science and worked for technology-based companies including Qualcomm, where the problem, he said, was that “the R&D teams would develop something new and clever and then ask us to find a reason people might want to use it”.

He had a desire to run his own business and in 2011 he gave up his job, re-taught himself how to code and started to think about how to use location in a mobile context. “Search and social had been done – location had to be next,” he said.

After discussing his ideas with Sussex Innovation Centre executive director Mike Herd, Anthony was determined to take the idea forward, and he quickly found that he was in the right place.

“We won a grant from the government’s Technology Strategy Board – now Innovate UK – to develop the idea, so I had an incomplete, self-coded prototype and a small cheque, but that was all,” he recalled.

“What I needed was software expertise – and with Mike’s help I found it, two doors along the corridor here at the Innovation Centre.” The man he found, Howard Sandford, is now the company’s chief technical officer and part of a five-strong team that is determined to take NearYouNow forward as a global business.

Having found his software expert, Anthony needed ‘deep domain expertise’ in natural language processing and during a conversation in the lobby he learned that he had just the resource 150 yards away. The University of Sussex’s text analysis group is made up of professors and PhD researchers who are experts in the field and now work closely with the company.

“The relationship between the university and the centre has proved invaluable in taking the business forward,” said Anthony. “It makes this an ideal base for a business like ours.”

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