How Wavii Turned #NBCFail into a Real-Time Feed for Olympics Fans

8/6/12Follow @curtwoodward

When the Summer Olympics got under way, the folks at Seattle startup Wavii figured they had a great test case for exploring some new ways of visualizing content.

With thousands of voices online pumping out information about a shared topic, Wavii could do what it does best: Crawl an enormous database of things being discussed on the Web and reassemble the fragmented details in an easy-to-digest format.

At first it was a just fun, internal side project. But then cranky Olympics fans started jumping on social media to complain about the tape delays, coverage choices, and other editorial choices that come with the Olympic territory. (Just search Twitter for #NBCFail if you missed it the first time around).

For the Wavii engineer working on the internal Olympics feed, it was a pretty clear opportunity. “NBC started having their fail moment,” CEO Adrian Aoun says, “And he said, `Well, we have that data.’”

The result is a running tally of results from the Olympic events, all tied together on a special page on the Wavii website. Click on a particular winner or event, and you get a more in-depth page that dives into the details of the news for that subject.

Once the initial version was out, Wavii started adding more features: A country-by-country medal leaderboard, and a “time machine” version that can replay the results as they happened.

If anyone with technical chops were to look at the code inside, they wouldn’t be knocked out by its beauty, Aoun says. But the experiment shows what’s possible with Wavii’s approach to advanced information extraction, a technology that can turn the volumes of written information scattered across the Web into easily readable formats that get straight to the point.

It’s the startup’s first foray into sports visualizations, but it may not be the last.

“We have awesome data, and we’re going to start showing more and more of this data in cool visualizations,” Aoun says. “This sort of stuff—to be honest, it’s trivial. This was like one person for 12 business hours.”

The feed was assembled by using Wavii’s existing database and the application programming interface, or API, that already plugs into its service. The Wavii site and mobile app work by hitting that API and asking for updates on certain topics, mainly under the categories of politics, technology, and entertainment.

For the Olympics experiment, the Wavii engineer just built a new feed that extracted Olympics information from the massive database of what’s occurring on the Web. “Anything that you want know that’s happening in the world, it is in that database. Or at least we hope it is,” Aoun says.

After that, the engineer used a JavaScript program called D3, which turns data into browser-ready visualizations using Web programming languages such as HTML, SVG and CSS.

Although it was a last-minute experiment, making the Olympics feed public fits into the core point behind what Wavii is trying to do. “Instead of making you consume long-form content, can’t I just give you the condensed visualization of what happened?” Aoun asks.

And hey, it’s a pretty good opportunity to help people find what they’re looking for (and get a little of that Olympics love).

“People are out there and they’re getting pissy at NBC. We can just fix this for you guys in a couple of minutes so why not?” Aoun says. “So win one for the startups, right?”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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