Interview: Nick D'Aloisio on Summly, Yahoo News Digest and more

The programming prodigy who is younger than Yahoo! Inc. but ended up getting USD 30 million from them for his news summary app, talks to us about the recently launched Yahoo News Digest

Published Date
23 - Jun - 2014
| Last Updated
23 - Jun - 2014
Interview: Nick D’Aloisio on Summly, Yahoo News Digest and more

Tell us a bit about the story so far

I joined Yahoo! about this time last year through an acquisition. My company was called Summly, and Summly took long form news articles and automatically, algorithmically summarised them into paragraphs. When I first came to Yahoo! we decided to integrate that technology within about two weeks into the Yahoo! News app in the US and ship that out. Once that integration was complete, I started focusing on what I wanted to do in the mid to long term at Yahoo! that’s when we came up with the idea of Yahoo News Digest. The premise behind this new app was to twice a day – one in the morning and once in the evening – inform the user of all the most important stories that they need to know to kind of become intelligent citizens.

Like the Canada one, are you planning a local edition for India eventually?

As a product we don’t see the international digest as a finished version. In our mind it’s a constantly updating and iterative process. Just as we have three country specific editions at the moment (and the generic international edition), we could see other markets in which we’ll introduce country specific digest. That is not decided individually by myself but by Marissa. We really want to test this model and introduce it one step at a time.

The app seems to lack customization options. Can I choose to customise the timing for my news update?

That’s a great point. By design one of the many characteristics that separate it from other news apps is the need to make it simple – function right out of the box. It doesn’t require users to do setups because that can deter from the experience. In order for people to become aware of this new concept, we didn’t want to allow them to customise too much of it, because they wouldn’t be able to use it for its intended use. First off if you do look at news consumption data and app consumption behaviour around 8 AM and 6 PM do then to be kind of the peak areas. That’s about the time wires have stopped and that’s what we were told by journalists would be the ideal times. So yes this is not a permanent thing and over time we will allow customisation of the notification timings. But to begin with we really didn’t want to give people too much leeway. Also it’s quite hard technically to allow for that.

Are the sources of news human curated or are those also algorithmically driven?

The sources themselves are algorithmically driven from the content pool that Yahoo! has available. The selection of which stories actually make the Digest – that is done editorially. The reason is, algorithms are very good at the synthesis of the content. They’re good at taking a cluster of articles, producing a summary, producing the atoms (key quotes, images, videos, stock tickers etc), but the problem with algorithms is – and this is actually a general AI problem – that it’s very difficult for them to decipher nuance. It can look at social signals but what happens if the story is just emerging but it deserves significant importance? The algorithm isn’t intelligent to understand that. That’s where the editors come in and the reason why we’ve taken this hybrid approach.

How’s your typical work day at Yahoo?

I’m the product manager of Yahoo! News Digest. That’s what I spend the majority of my time at Yahoo! On the side, when I’m not in the office, here in California I’m studying for my final exams. It’s been very hectic handling this dichotomy – one minute doing digest the other going back to class having to study and revise. However lot of the stuff is complementary.

Is there a plan in place to monetize the app eventually?

It’s all about getting to critical mass or scale where that would make sense. So we’re actually doing a bit of testing of ads in some markets. For the moment our focus is very much on just creating a beautiful user experience.

Siddharth ParwataySiddharth Parwatay

Siddharth a.k.a. staticsid is a bigger geek than he'd like to admit. Sometimes even to himself. Protection Status