Politibot chatbot for journalists – an alumni story

Politibot’s innovation in journalism, funding from Google and some news for next edition of ABC – this is what you can find in our interview with Miguel Eduardo Gil Biraud a.k.a. Franchu. He’s a BEST Valladolid alumnus (’03-’07), ABC veteran and this year joining us in the organising team for ABC 2018.

This is the first post in what we hope will become a series of posts featuring BEST alumni and their stories of success and experience. Have a story to share, write to us at stories@alumnibusinesscamp.net.

Welcome to the team Franchu! Can you tell us a bit about yourself – your alumni self :)?

Since I became an alumni I’ve had a windy professional path: from trainee to full-time employee in Spain, then I moved to The Netherlands to work at ESA for almost two years. After that contract was concluded I tried the startup life and failed miserably at it [and Franchu gave a great talk about it at ABC 2013 in Brussels]. I then decided to freelance to recover financially, and now I’m having a startup that I combine with a part-time job.

What is Politibot – can you give us an elevator pitch?

Politibot is a chatbot platform that enables media organizations to create a presence in chat applications. We see these bots as a new channel that allows journalists to reach younger audiences and tell stories differently. This has worked well for us so far, and now we are exploring other verticals where asynchronous consumption of personalized content can add value to a business.

Could you give an example of how this would work? I heard you already had a success with it in Chile.

One of our first clients were a group of journalists from Chile that wanted to create a bot to explain everything that was happening around the elections in Chile. There had been many changes: voting system, parties, etc… so there were plenty of things to tell. The decision to use a chatbot proved to be quite successful as they got very good engagement numbers and they are going to continue using the bot to explain what is happening in the country.

When I say “explaining things”, or I refer to “engagement numbers”, it’s because the way we normally use the bot is by scripting a short conversation that the user will go through with the bot. The journalists have an easy way to create these conversations, to the point that they are doing it on a daily basis. Imagine a follow-your-own-adventure book, add multimedia content (eg. charts, photos, animated gifs!), shorten it for a world with twitter-like attention spans, put it in a chat application… et voila, you have the kind of experience that you can build on our platform. Over 50% of the users, interact with the bot on a daily basis!

You’ve received funding from Google, for the second time, can you tell us what does this mean for your team and for Politibot’s future?

We just got funded for the second time under the Google Digital News Initiative. That means we get money that will help us develop new functionality in the chatbot platform. We wanted to explore new ways of telling stories and the current monetization possibilities. This funding will allow us to dedicate resources to make these ideas a reality and hopefully advance the state-of-the-art in terms of the experiences that journalistic chatbots offer.

Do you get some support other than the money (e.g. mentorship, connections, visibility)?

Apart from the money, I think the biggest takeaways from participating in the DNI are: visibility and connections.

Visibility is a very valuable thing when you are a young startup. You get showcased in the website when they announce the funding and then you are invited to an event where you can see what the other people are working on and you can share your progress as well.

This leads to my second point: connections. At those events you get to meet people in that are working in media and that are your potential customers. It’s a great place to network and get leads.

How did the process of getting the funding look like?

There is an open call for projects that can fall under three different categories depending on the amount that you want. Each of the categories has some different requirements and conditions on what can be funded.

The proposal application process is not too difficult once you have a clear idea of what you want to build, how you want to build it, and how much it’s going to cost.

What were some of the most surprising thing you learned about how people interact with chat bots so far?

There are two things that come to mind: first is that people can grow really fond of bots and will reach out to you if you don’t send the conversation on a given day or you send it later than usually. The second is the surprising amount of people that will say nasty things to the bot.

I feel that for few years now there was a lot of buzz around the bots, but I do not recall (yet) any project that has made it to the mainstream. Do you know of any, is it too early or maybe this form of communication is a niche product? What’s your take on this?

There are many companies out there offering chatbots, toolkits to build your chatbot, and any possible thing that may or may not be useful. There are lots of bad bots out there, and I fear that the abundance of bad bots promising a lot (eg. full natural language understanding) and failing to deliver will end up poisoning the well for everybody.

There are a few chatbots that are doing quite well (beside ours ;)). I would recommend taking a look at the NYT bot and anything that the people at Quartz do in that field. They are really doing cool things!

As for whether it is a niche product or too early, I think there is currently a mismatch in capabilities and expectations. While we watch in awe what Google and Facebook showcase at their developer events, the reality is that those demos are working in very contrived scenarios and controlled conditions. In a few years we are all going to be using conversational interfaces, be it by writing in something that looks like the current chatbots or by talking to devices like Siri, Alexa, or Google Home. But I can tell you one thing, being at the forefront of this rising tide is exhilarating!

This is not the only project you are personally working on, can you tell us what else you’re involved with these days?

I’m working as a data scientist for an eHealth company in The Netherlands. There I’m trying to bring information to the table to help with product design decisions, and building tools to empower our intervention developers to create even better content that can help even more people.

We are very glad to have you join the ABC team for 2018 Netherlands edition. You were there at previous edition in Tallinn where the theme was Digital Transformation which fit very will with Estonian leadership in that field with projects like e-residency. And while I know we don’t yet have a theme for 2018 edition, could you give us a glimpse of what kind of entrepreneurship can Netherlands be a good example of?

When I moved to The Netherlands I was really surprised by the amount of tech meetups and startups. After 9 years here, I can say that I’m impressed by the breadth and depth of the entrepreneurship ecosystem. There are really interesting companies in fintech, media, aerospace, logistics, bioscience, renewable energies, food production,… For such a small country it certainly hits above its weight!

I’m really excited to be able to invite people to join us this fall in The Netherlands to discover a bit more about what’s going on here.

And finally, is there anything you want to ask our alumni network or our readers (e.g. feedback, some specific connections, know-how on some topic)?

I would like to ask alumni to participate in activities like ABC. Last year in Tallinn I was really impressed by the quality of the conversations I had with people on the side of the event. Our BEST times may be gone, but we there is still plenty that we can learn from each other.

On a more personal note, if you know someone on the market for a bot, feel free to send them my way!