2015 Gannett Foundation Award for Technical Innovation in the Service of Digital Journalism finalist

Proximity Alerts


About the Project

We’re Breaking News, a standalone mobile startup owned by NBC News. This entry is about an innovation focused on public safety called “proximity alerts.”

If you’ve opted into proximity alerts in the Breaking News app, whenever a big story breaks near your physical location — even as you travel internationally — you’ll receive a push notification with the news. Since we launched across both iOS and Android last summer, we’ve pushed more than 1,500 proximity alerts (about 150 a month) for earthquakes, severe storms, evacuations, mass shootings, health warnings, major fires, power outages, escaped convicts and more.

About 95% of these alerts are sent only to people in close proximity to the story. To the rest of our users, these stories are much less relevant, and we don’t bother them with the news. As we’ve learned, proximity is a powerful driver of relevancy: there are few breaking stories more impactful that the ones happening right next to you.

This is a first for a mobile app on any platform. While Apple pushes severe storm warnings, we span all kinds of breaking news – previously unstructured data that we’ve structured — across all geographies.
While it sounds simple, there’s a lot of complexity behind the scenes. As with all of Breaking News’ alerts, our editors monitor social media and thousands of news sources, vet the stories, and write the copy in a format that’s tailored for a notification. Our content management system – the first mobile news CMS (released in 2011) – automatically populates a wealth of metadata on the fly, including locations, and our editors are able to make quick adjustments when needed.

If a particular story happens at (not just mentions) a given location AND it has the potential to impact people nearby, our editors choose to send it as a proximity alert. Our CMS then prompts our editors to select the geographic boundary of users who will receive it (section #5 in the .PDF)

Just like the story itself, choosing these boundaries is a journalistic decision, too. Our editors weigh the early reports, locations of eyewitness accounts and our experience covering similar stories to determine whether to send the alert to the surrounding neighborhood, city, metro, county or the entire state. We can also send an alert to multiple geographies, which we often do for severe storm warnings. (See sections #1 and #3 in the .PDF to see the variation.)

To our knowledge, this is the first time that news judgment has been applied to geolocation, and it took several months of trial and error in private beta to understand and operationalize across our 24/7 editorial team. In one beta example, one of us received a proximity alert about a mass shooting that was occurring across the street from his kids’ daycare. He called his wife, who called the daycare – the first parent to call – and fortunately the kids were OK.

Other than getting the story and location right, the most important aspect of proximity alerts is the speed that we deliver them. The longer you have to wait without good information, the higher your anxiety level and the potential risk surrounding you or people you know.

Let’s use the building explosion and collapse in East Village, New York, on March 26th as an example. We sent a total of four proximity alerts in a little over an hour to residents inside the New York City limits, and the first was sent only two minutes after the first major local news organizations tweeted the news – and before the vast majority of local apps (and all national apps) sent a notification. (See section #4 in the .PDF).

In these circumstances, we believe it’s more effective to notify users – rattle their phones – rather than hope they stumble across the story on an app, website or social media account. In many cases, people are unaware a big story is happening a few blocks away.

Proximity alerts are especially valuable when you’re traveling and unfamiliar with local news sources or languages. The Breaking News app “travels” with you across markets and oceans, filling the gaps between news apps. We’ve sent proximity alerts to dozens of countries for stories that range from typhoons and volcano evacuations to terrorist attacks. We’re often surprised to discover that people are receiving them, even in some far-flung places.

While we reserve proximity alerts for big stories, we also enable users to tap the “nearby” tab (see section #2 in the .PDF) to see stories breaking near them. This feed draws from our own updates as well as tweets from our 400+ news partners and government agencies that we run through a geolocation tool in our CMS (these tweets don’t need to be geolocated in Twitter.)

We publish approximately 12,000 updates a month that only appear to people who are near the stories themselves. Users can choose to adjust the range of stories they’re seeing from 1-100 miles around them. Similar to proximity alerts, it travels with them, and it’s a first for a mobile app.

All of our data flows through our private API which has made it easier to extend to new devices; for example, proximity alerts and nearby stories are also available on Apple Watch.

This is a lot to boil down to a 1,000-word entry, but to the user, proximity alerts just work. When you receive one, it can feel slightly magical.

We invented proximity alerts not solely through technology or journalism, but through the marriage of both. We tackle product development as a team, looking for ways to leverage and improve our data to solve hard problems in the new mobile world. We didn’t plan on making proximity alerts; we just realized we could.