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At the top of a New York Times article online that gives explanations to frequently asked questions about Covid-19 vaccines, readers can type in any query that comes to mind. “Am I eligible?” “Can I take Tylenol before I get vaccinated?” “How will we know when things are getting better?” A search tool returns the most relevant answer. It’s a little like Google, except all of the results have been reported by Times journalists.
The tool uses machine learning to most accurately infer what readers are asking, is a project of The Times’s research and development group. A constantly evolving department at The Times that has existed in its current form since 2016, the group continually looks for technology to elevate journalism.
In June, the R&D team updated its website to make it easier to share its experimental projects and its newsroom collaborations with fellow technologists, journalists, and academics.
While “research and development” might evoke images of locked offices full of analysts and inventors secretly building futuristic prototypes, the reality is a bit different. Members of the 35-person team of technologists, designers, producers, and strategists work closely with the newsroom involving technologies already in use for other mediums, such as gaming, or are expected to be soon.
“We make calculated bets around those technologies” and then experiment with them, Lana Porter, R&D’s creative director, said.
The vaccine F.A.Q. Page was built with natural language processing, which uses machine learning to analyze large amounts of text. The software that R&D made was initially developed for the coronavirus F.A.Q. Page, a predecessor where readers sought answers about the virus when it was first spreading around the globe.
“We all realized that if coronavirus was the story of 2020, the vaccines were the story of 2021,” said Tara Parker-Pope, founding editor of Well and the lead editor of the F.A.Q. page. “And we really wanted to make sure that we were giving readers the same kind of science-based answers to their questions.”