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news.bridge is dead, long live news.bridge!

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news.bridge team members Hina Imran and Peggy van der Kreeft overseeing on-the-fly subtitle creation at GMF 2019 in Bonn

Hello and welcome to the project wrap-up post – which actually isn’t a project wrap-up post. Funding by the Google DNI officially ran out on June 30th and the consortium is about to disband, but work on news.bridge will continue (hooray!). There’s a new team (more on that later), and a decision to polish up a platform that is already quite shiny.

Lots of happy users

Deutsche Welle editors have been testing news.bridge in various use cases for several months now. As of June 2019,  content in English, German, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish has been produced and evaluated. Test runs in Arabic, Farsi, Swahili, and Turkish are underway. External beta testers include a wide range of media companies from Euronews to 1&1/GMX.DE, but also international freelance journalists.

While news.bridge still has a couple of glitches and not all features have been implemented yet, the platform has been met with a lot of applause.  More conservative testers called it “very good and very useful”, feedback from enthusiasts sounded something like this: “Fantastic! Magic! When can I have this?”

news.bridge saves users a lot of time when re-versioning and adapting content for another language (or format).

HLT out and about

The fact that our consortium has been invited to dozens of language technology and innovation events also demonstrates the heightened interest in news.bridge. Recent event highlights include sessions, talks and presentations at the MESA Content Workflow Management Forum (London), ECIR (Cologne), MDN Workshop (Geneva), and, of course, our major live testing operation at GMF (Bonn).

2018 saw us speak at Subtech1 (Munich), the Workshop on Corpus Analysis of Time-Based Arts and Media (Berlin), a Google DNI Summit in Paris – and many other great events. In late November, we also partnered with the SUMMA project to host the Language Technology Hands-On Days in Bonn – another fruitful get-together that drew almost 100 participants.

New features, new services, new projects

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Screenshot of the latest news.bridge user interface.

As news.bridge is growing internally and externally into what could become a proper SaaS platform, we’re working on redesigning the GUI, adding new functionalities (e.g. with regard to file import/export), and implementing new APIs: The EU’s MT service eTranslations is already available (albeit currently only to users at public institutions), and Microsoft has signaled their interest in adding some of the Azure Cognitive Services to our HLT mash-up solution.

In addition, news.bridge will be used as one of the output platforms for GoURMET, a major EU-funded project focusing on (better) machine translation for low-resource languages and domains. Hopefully, we’ll soon be able to offer you state-of-the-art MT for some very exotic language pairs.

Become a part of the news.bridge family

In case you were wondering if you can still join us as a beta tester: Yes, you can! Simply write to info@newsbridge.eu – and get a free, fully functional trial account. Furthermore, we’re always open to tech companies offering NLProc APIs (ASR, NMT, TTS). Our aim is to get as many high-quality services as possible under one umbrella.

Last, but not least, we’d like to thank everybody who has contributed to making news.bridge such a successful project. The past 18 months were a blast – and the future is wide open. HLT FTW!

Insights from our first user testing sessions

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newsbridge_user_testing

Getting early input from the people you are designing for is absolutely essential – which is why we invited about a dozen colleagues to give the latest beta version of news.bridge a test run at the DW headquarters in Bonn last month. We had two really inspiring sessions with journalists, project managers and other media people working for DW and associated companies — and we have gained a number of useful insights. While some of them are too project-specific to share (news.bridge is not in public beta yet), there are also more general learnings that should make for an interesting journo tech blog post. Here we go:

Infrastructure and preparation

When inviting people to simultaneously stream and play around with news videos, make sure you have enough bandwidth. This may sound trivial, but it’s important, especially in Germany (which doesn’t even make the Top 20 when it comes to internet connection speed).

To document what your beta testers have to say as quickly and convenient as possible, we recommend to prepare digital questionnaires (e.g. Google Forms) and send out a link well before the end of the session. That way, you get solid feedback from everyone. It’s also a good idea to add a screenshot/comment feature (e.g. html2canvas) to the platform that is being tested. In addition, open discussions and interview-type interactions provide very useful feedback.

Testing automatic speech recognition (ASR) tools

Thanks to artificial neural networks, ASR services have become incredibly sophisticated in the last couple of years and deliver very decent results. Basically all of our test users said the technology will significantly speed up the tiresome transcription process when producing multilingual news videos.

However, ASR still has trouble when:

  • people speak with a heavy dialect and/or in incomplete sentences (like some European football coaches who shall not be named)
  • people speak simultaneously (which frequently happens at press conferences, for example)
  • complicated proper names occur (Aung San Suu Kyi, Hery Rajaonarimampianina)
  • homophones occur (merry, marry, Mary)
  • there is a lot of background noise (which is often interpreted as language and transcribed to gibberish)

As a result, journalists will almost certainly have to do thorough post-editing for a while and also correct (or add) punctuation, which is crucial for the subsequent translation.

Testing machine translation (MT) tools

What has been said about ASR also applies to MT: The tech has made huge leaps, but results are not perfect yet. Especially when you are a professional editor and thus have high standards. Something really important to remember:

The better and more structured your transcript (or uploaded original script),
the better the translation you end up with.

As for the limits of machine translation during our testrun, we found that “exotic” languages like Pashto (which is really important for international broadcasters like DW) are not implemented really well. Few services cover them, and the translation results are subpar. This is not a big surprise, of course, as the corpus used to train the algorithms is so much smaller than that of a major Western language like French or German. This also means that it is up to projects like news.bridge to improve MT services by feeding the algorithms high-quality content, e.g. articles from DW’s Pashto news site.

While MT tools are in general very useful when producing web videos — you need a lot of subtitling in the era of mobile social videos on muted phones — there are some workflows that are hard to improve or speed up. For example: How do you tap into digital information carriers that are an individually branded, hard-coded part of a video created in software like Adobe Premiere? Well, for now we can’t, but we’re working on solutions. In the meantime, running news.bridge in a fixed tab and copy-pasting your translated script bits is an acceptable workaround.

Testing speech synthesis

Sometimes, computer voices are indispensable. For example, when you’re really curious about this blogpost, but can’t read it because you’re on a bike or in a (traditional) car.

In news production however, artificial readers/presenters are merely a gimmick. At least for the time being. That’s because once your scripts are finished, reading/recording them isn’t that time consuming and will provide much nicer results. Besides, synthetic voices aren’t yet available in all languages (once again, Pashto is paragon).

Nevertheless, news.bridge beta testers told us that the voices work fairly well, and even sound pretty natural in some cases. They can be trained, by the way, which is an interesting exercise we will try out at some point.

HLT services and news production in a nutshell

If we had to sum up the assessment of our beta testers in just a few sentences, they would read something like this:

HLT services and tools are useful (or very useful) in news productions these days: They get you decent results and save you a lot of time.

news.bridge is a promising, easy-to-use mash-up platform, especially when it comes to transcribing and translating and creating subtitles (another relevant use case is gisting).

news.bridge is not about complete automation. It’s about supporting journalists and editors. It’s about making things easier.