If you browse the media site News24's newsletters section, you’ll find a newsletter called 'Have we got news for you' that differs from its peers; it’s a personalised collection of News24 stories that appear in your inbox daily.
Using a recommendation system, the newsletter selects stories based on what you read previously and themes you share with others. It’s an anonymous, non-invasive way to make personalised story recommendations to News24 readers and a great example of how 24.com uses data to create new products and services.
“We have really good data-gathering and data resources. So it’s very attractive and a great place for data scientists to come," says Dr Alex Jacobs, the 24.com data scientist who leads the project.
A home for data innovation
24.com is the technology group that powers digital innovation among Media24’s companies. It's responsible for designing, building and maintaining the digital systems that help serve news and other content to millions of readers every day. 24.com is privacy-centric by design, prioritising protection of customer data by integrating privacy considerations into the very foundation of the design rather than treating it as an afterthought or adding it as a secondary feature.
This distinction makes 24.com one of the savviest leading technology teams in South Africa, brimming with opportunities to pursue practical innovation while maintaining a strong emphasis on protecting user privacy.
Data is a cornerstone of news organisations, so it’s no surprise that you’ll also find data scientists among the coders and designers. They hail from eclectic backgrounds, says Jacobs:
The former election coverage system was dated. It relied on on-premises systems, making load allocation a constant headache. Its map results dashboard was cumbersome, limited and heavy on resources. To introduce improvements, 24.com decided to design a new system from scratch.
“There are always people with other perspectives, bringing new insights. I have my own very strange background, and I bring a unique perspective;” says Jacobs who has a Master's degree in Plant Biotechnology and a PhD in Internal Medicine. But when he encountered data science, it became a passion that eventually became a new career.
“We’ve got team members from various backgrounds including astronomy and music, and they will often see things very differently,” he adds.
“The data is continually changing. It’s a great learning experience to make this work every day – there’s new data going in all the time. Coming from my background, where we have very small sample sizes, it was a big change. And the data is accurate. A lot of teams are involved to make sure of this.”
News for you
Recommendation engines help improve many of your daily digital experiences. Using a blend of machine learning and various models, they suggest content on streaming platforms, e-commerce sites and search results.
In 2021, Jacobs participated in a Future Skills course, and as a course project, created a newsletter using a recommendation engine’s output.
“We could take the recommendations that we were getting already. We didn’t have to build anything from scratch, and we found a place to serve it – the newsletter. We pitched that idea and then trialled it with a small group. We slowly built it from there until we got it onto News24. It's just been kind of growing by itself at its steady course, and generates wonderful engagement.”
The project lets Jacobs and his peers work with large sets of quality data and leading tools, such as Google TensorFlow. But it’s not just about tinkering. 24.com provides technology choices to several of South Africa’s most read and dynamic publications. A great deal of collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas takes place.
“We have data engineers, data scientists, product managers and developers. We work together: the engineers help build production systems and we do more of the exploration. We also get a lot of questions from the business and journalists. Sometimes these are complex questions and it can take a lot of back and forth to get to where they want to go. Collaboration is key. I can't control what's on the page, but I can deliver some insights to help editorial or improve user journeys.”
The 24.com technology team is at the epicentre of using digital assets such as data, to create engaging and practical products that mean a lot to many people. Even the creation of a personalised newsletter is branching out into other areas.
“We recently made a personalised newsletter for Huisgenoot magazine and are working with other Media24 properties. Other plans are in place as well, but we can't talk about them yet.”
Still, whatever Jacobs and his fellow data scientists get up to, they’re doing it within one of South Africa's leading technology teams in 24.com – using data to help readers discover new content, journalists to tell meaningful stories, and ensure South Africa gets trusted news, first.