Attention news junkies: Twitter might not be the best spot to get breaking news, after all. A Google engineer has designed a web app that can alert users to breaking news based on the frequency of Wikipedia edits to certain articles.
Called Wikipedia Live Monitor, Google engineer Thomas Steiner created the tool with the hypothesis that "if a breaking news event is important, it will be reflected on at least one language edition of Wikipedia," and "the time between when the news broke first and the news being reflected on Wikipedia is considerably short."
Steiner says the classic example of this is when Michael Jackson died – within seconds, the King of Pop's Wikipedia page was flooded with users attempting to edit his page with new information about his death. When Russia was hit with a meteor earlier this year, dozens of pages were created on Wikipedia with new information, which showed up on Steiner's tool.
By monitoring the number of editors and edits on any given page within a short amount of time, Wikipedia Live Monitor is able to point out a number of "breaking news candidates," which Steiner says might be more reliable than a Twitter feed.
"The main motivation of using Wikipedia instead of social media is you get a lot of events in one place—almost everything relevant in a breaking news sense has a Wikipedia page," Steiner says.
"On social networks, you also get a lot of false positive alerts," meaning false reports of celebrity deaths that go viral. On Wikipedia, Steiner says those errors are almost instantly corrected by other editors. The tool cross-checks Wikipedia edits with social media updates on Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook to help users get a better sense of what is trending.
For now, the tool monitors Wikipedias in several dozen languages with the theory that if an article is updated in several different languages within a few minutes of each other, that news item is of international importance. Future versions of the tool might allow users to limit searches to specific countries.
In recent days, "breaking news candidates" on Steiner's tool have included comedian Jonathan Winters, who died Friday, Nicolas Maduro, who was elected president of Venezuela Monday, and Gangnam Style artist PSY, who recently released a new song. Because the Wikipedia community has standards for what is important enough to have a Wikipedia page, he says the site is an ideal way to track news.
"If it makes it onto Wikipedia, it almost certainly something that has a bit of importance," he says.
Though he works for Google, Steiner says he's unsure if the search giant will use his tool to help rank Google News pages or offer it as an official product ("It's too early to talk about that now," he says). For now though, the tool is tweakable, with users able to define how often a story needs to be edited in order to register as a "breaking news candidate."
"Anyone who does news classification or news ranking will be interested in this tool," he says.