A member of the startup team that built YouTube, Qu uses his technical knowledge to develop tools for journalists

My visiting Fellowship at the Nieman Foundation recalibrated my career. I like to code, to build software for startups that disrupt the media industry. I worked for YouTube in its early days and more recently for news aggregation site Upworthy. But my unapologetic, meandering liberal arts spirit somehow anchored itself to journalism. After seven fruitful years in Silicon Valley, I moved to New York City and enrolled in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. My friends thought I was crazy. ‘Why quit Google to go into a dying industry?’

My Fellowship began with a Sounding by Paula Molina, NF ’13, a radio journalist from Chile. She recounted how she had to improvise on live radio after a massive earthquake struck her country in 2010. I was mesmerized by the intensity in her voice during her broadcasts and by the photos she showed of the devastation. Her story validated my goal of creating a social media data-mining tool called Keepr.

I came to Cambridge to collaborate with Nieman Foundation staff and fellows on Keepr, which extracts credible real-time information from raw Twitter feeds. The vision is to design an algorithm that filters thousands of tweets to automatically distill meaningful signals out of noisy chatter. In her Sounding, Paula described how during those first chaotic hours after the earthquake she tried to project a voice of strength and courage to a nation in shock, despite the dearth of information from the field. Starting that night, I put my heart and soul into making Keepr a reliable tool to help reporters make sense of fast-moving news stories.

Keepr got a real-life field test in April during the Boston Marathon bombings. I used the algorithm to follow events as they unfolded, identifying reliable information tweeted by both journalists and eyewitnesses on the scene.

The Fellowship crystallized my vision for my career. I realized that, despite my friends’ misgivings, my true passion lies in creatively applying data science to empower journalists to adapt and thrive in the networked society. My personal contribution is to conceive and build tools to analyze big data and incorporate the wisdom of the crowd into newsgathering and storytelling practice.

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