Text to speech, automation and AI: How Google is backing Middle East news providers

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Google has awarded just under $2m to 21 projects in the Middle East, Turkey and Africa, following the first Google News Initiative (GNI) Innovation Challenge in the region.

The move is part of a wider series of regional innovation challenges, and a global commitment from Google News to give $300m “to help journalism thrive in the digital age”.

What is Google looking for?

Digital transformation

A key focus for funding is “to support projects that drive digital innovation and develop new business models”. Specifically in the Middle East, proposals were asked to focus on projects that “increase reader engagement and/or explore new business models to build a stronger future for journalism”.

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Engagement was defined as a key metric, given that “engaged users are … more likely to convert to paid subscribers”, while the focus on business models sought to encourage “moves which go beyond the traditional means to generate revenues”.

What types of innovation is Google funding?

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of interest in the call for proposals. Google received 527 applications from 35 countries. Of this, $1.93m in funding was allocated to 21 projects from 13 countries across the region.

Within this, as Google’s Sarah Hartley wrote in a blogpost, “The call for applications listed four criteria: impact, feasibility, innovation and inspiration, and the successful projects clearly demonstrated all four.”

Here are some examples of these winning projects and the tech they will use and develop.

1. Automation of data-driven stories

Israel had the largest number of successful applicants, with four initiatives securing funding.

The website yNet successfully pitched an idea focused on the automation and distribution of content from large structured datasets, such as election results and public school rankings. Automated articles will be created on a city-by-city basis, and distributed by geographically focused push notifications.

“With this project yNet wishes to face a major challenge in the digital news landscape: the current inability to produce such large amounts of content from data available to us,” Google noted.

2. Bridging the academic and public divide

In the United Arab Emirates, Aloloom Lil Omoom (Popular Science Arabia) secured support to expand its science and tech platform via partnerships with the academic community. The aspiration is for people working in these fields to “share their research and breakthroughs” in a language (Arabic) and style, which is “accessible to the public”.

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In the UAE, Aloloom Lil Omoom, or Popular Science Arabia, secured Google backing.

Image: Popular Science

3. Text to speech, Arabic and English

Meanwhile, The National – an English-language daily newspaper published in Abu Dhabi – identified “a unique opportunity to develop a new service within the rapidly expanding voice market”.

The paper plans to create a text-to-speech offering, which will share stories in both English and Arabic. Given that “high-quality content in Arabic remains quite limited compared with the size of the Arabic-speaking market”, this product seeks to help address that gap.

In response to the award, Mina Al-Oraibi, an Iraqi-British journalist and The National’s Editor-in-Chief, observed that “as device proliferation grows, listening to content is becoming more important”.

“News organizations such as The National have an important part to play in ensuring that high quality news is distributed and accessible to all,” she added.

4. Video debates and discourse

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Image: Mushtarek

Broadening access, was a theme also found in a proposal from Nas News in Iraq. The company proposed prototyping a platform for interactive video debates, designed to engage Iraqi citizens about local issues.

“The debates will be facilitated by a network of local correspondents, journalists and activists who have good social media followership and community reputation,” Google explained.

Using a local Iraqi, mobile-first social platform, Mushtarek, Google stated that “they fill a gap in the market to provide a much-needed service that allows local communities a voice in a democratic society.”

5. Reaching underserved audiences

“Members of the diaspora represent 13% of the total population of Morocco,” Google said. Yet, “little is done to engage and empower this community”.

TelQuel, a French-language weekly magazine in Morocco, aims to address that with “a dedicated platform, offering news from a trusted media brand, services, interactivity and networking”.

6. Improving access to Arabic digital content

Similarly, Jawla, a tech-enabled media start-up in Lebanon, is keen to serve another underserved audience: internet users who struggle to find high-quality information online in Arabic.

“Our research shows that most Arabic digital publishers have limited capacity, know-how, and budgets to reach targeted critical niche audiences through digital marketing,” they said.

“As a result, they miss out on serving and monetizing their content to more than half of their potential digital audience.”

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To address this issue, Jawla will use AI and machine learning to create an “Arabic media web platform that classifies, curates, and distributes thoughtful news information in a relevant, smart, and personalized manner to Arabic internet users”.

Discoverability is also a theme manifest in Zamakan, a curated network of high-quality podcasts, launched by Sowt, an Arabic podcasting platform based in Jordan’s capital city, Amman.

Zamakan زمكان, meaning ‘spacetime’ in Arabic, will be “a curated network of high-quality podcasts from independent producers across the Middle East and North Africa”.

It aims to promote the discoverability and monetization of podcasts, through the provision of production services, hosting, outreach and publishing, ad sales and – COVID-19 notwithstanding – live events. 

Looking ahead to round two

For the first round, Google announced that it would fund selected projects up to $150,000 and 70% of the total project cost. Companies must be incorporated in the Middle East, Turkey and Africa, or their principal place of business has to be based there.

Interestingly, the company has been willing to invest larger individual sums in other regions.

In both Latin America and Asia-Pacific the project cap stood at $250,000, while in North America it is $300,000. However, in each instance, funding is restricted to 70% or less of the total project cost. Whether the Middle East’s funding cap will be aligned with other regions in the future remains to be seen.

The Silicon Valley giant plans to launch a second round of application for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa Innovation Challenge later this year.