They call it pack journalism. Hordes of reporters chase the same story — in the same way — while other developments go uncovered.
That’s the challenge that Lee’s Summit High School graduate Chris Mitchell tried to solve with two other students at the University of Missouri. They created an app called Informator, which took the grand prize at the 10th annual RJI Student Competition at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
For the competition, MU students from various disciplines collaborated to design a program or app using newer technology.
For the 2017 competition, teams were given the challenge of “building mobile applications of artificial intelligence to address journalistic problems and opportunities,” according to Mike McKean, competition mentor and associate director of the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.
Mitchell, who graduated from high school in 2015, is studying computer science at MU. His Team MindFlow — which also included computer science student Evan Teters and journalism student Humera Lodhi — devised a search tool that finds hidden relationships between key words and phrases — leading journalists to new story angles.
By tracking concepts highly correlated with the word “transgender,” for example, the team surfaced a report that many European countries require transgender residents to be sterilized when they try to change their name or gender on a driver’s license. They also teased out an under-reported story about the difficulty that transgender diabetes patients have with health care services, especially in rural areas.
Mitchell says he enjoys the creative side of computer science, designing technology that’s eye-catching and easy to use.
“I’ve always wanted to find a way to combine technology and art or design,” he said.
Team MindFlow traces its beginnings to the fall semester last year, when Teters suggested that he and Mitchell, who were friends and roommates, attend an informational session about the competition. When people were asked to introduce themselves to others, Lodhi turned around and said hi to the two young men sitting behind her. They began talking and decided to form a team, Mitchell said.
“Humera really helped us understand some of the challenges journalists face when trying to find unique angles to cover stories,” Mitchell said. “I drove the concept for building the app, Evan did most of the computer coding, and Humera worked on how to effectively market the app. I was surprised at how many technology tools journalists rely on.”
There were some hiccups, of course.
“The database service we were using to build the app on was shut down part way through the development phase, and we had to quickly shift to a different type of service to power the app,” Mitchell said. “That was probably the biggest challenge and the most stressful part of the process.”
Informator’s code now sits on top of the Aylien News API, which indexes news content for two months from what it describes as thousands of high-quality and trusted sources worldwide.
Team MindFlow envisions researchers, educators, marketers and political advisers as other potential customers for Informator.
“It’s a clear concept that they already started to refine, and they thought about it beyond this competition and beyond journalism,” said Amanda Klohmann, a final-final round judge.
Mitchell said his years at Lee’s Summit High School have proved valuable. He points to “some very good teachers,” especially those who taught the demanding International Baccalaureate courses.
“I learned how to manage my time and balance different activities, which has been helpful in my first two years of college and helped me a lot with balancing my coursework and this extracurricular project.”
After his sophomore year in high school, Mitchell attended the three-week Missouri Scholars Academy, which encouraged him to take advantage of college opportunities and where he learned “some of the skills that helped me refine our app into its final form.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Mitchell hopes to continue exploring his twin interests in technology and design through a master’s degree and perhaps a doctorate.
“Then we’ll see what opportunities develop.”