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Friday, August 25, 2006

BOB GARFIELD; Well, there's one way to remove human error from financial reporting - remove the human altogether. A financial news service has begun using computer software to analyze corporate earnings statements and robotically write the stories in a fraction of a second. Andrew Meagher is the Director of Content Development for Thomson Financial, and he joins us now. Andrew, welcome to OTM.


BOB GARFIELD: Describe for me how these computer-generated stories work.

ANDREW MEAGHER: What we've done is taken the data that we have sitting in the numerous databases that Thomson owns and run them through a set of processes which are based on business rules and various algorithms that ends up creating free text that actually would appear to be the same as anything that's being written by a person.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Now, frequently, a quarterly report will include not only the numbers on earnings per share and so forth, but there'll be footnoted items which would really change the entire context for all of the ordinary earnings figures. How does the computer deal with footnotes?

ANDREW MEAGHER: What we do there, and it's actually the entire process in collecting estimates from analysts, is that if we come up with something which is a significant anomaly from the expectation, we go back and we ask the analysts to make sure that they're comparing like for like with the way the company's reporting. So we have a flag that stops the story going out until we get that reconciliation. And in that instance, you know, there's still the role for the journalist, because a computer can't do that.

BOB GARFIELD: Oh, so the computer can't be spun in the way that a human reporter can.


BOB GARFIELD: Now, I must say that if this were morning television or something like that, every anchor would ask the following question - tell me, Andrew, [FEIGNED LAUGH], is my job in jeopardy? But let me ask you something, Andrew. Is my job in jeopardy?

ANDREW MEAGHER: If you believe that the height of your skill set is to take a set of numbers from a financial database and put it into a template, then, yes, it is.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Andrew. Well, thank you so much.

ANDREW MEAGHER: A pleasure. Thanks very much for your time.

BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Meagher is the Director of Content Development for Thomson Financial.