What do you get when you mix a poetry major and a development project in Africa?
An unconventional government contractor.
In 1995, Bryan Rich traveled to Africa in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, working with a group of local journalists to set up an independent radio station in Burundi, its neighboring country. The project, established by Washington nonprofit Search for Common Ground and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, placed Rich in charge of recruiting and training journalists.
While navigating the challenges of a war-torn region with a history of media-sponsored propaganda, Rich said he created a system to better understand the work of his reporters.
He made databases for each reporter’s stories, collecting information on whom they quoted and metadata on their sources, such as ethnic group, religion and gender.
“Right away, I saw patterns,” Rich said. “And what I started to realize is there was a statistical framework you could use to map [those] patterns.”
He used his findings to help the Burundi journalists improve their reporting.
After returning from Africa, Rich spent a year as a Nieman Fellow of Journalism at Harvard University, developing his analysis model.
That led to the birth of Global News Intelligence in 1999, founded by Rich and childhood friend Mike Howe.
The company was an early player in the field of media analytics, looking at news reports over time to understand patterns in sentiment, influence and rhetoric that could provide insights to governments, big companies and nonprofits.
GNI was acquired by McLean-based analytics contractor Novetta Solutions this summer for an undisclosed sum.
For Rich, who also holds a degree in Latin American studies from Middlebury College, the journey from an idea in Africa to a full-fledged business wasn’t planned.
“We just started building, learning as we were going,” Rich said. “We were trying to come up with a business model.”
Howe had a technology background and helped automate the process of data analysis.
Rich said they tried marketing GNI’s services to media companies, but some were worried that reporters wouldn’t like the level of scrutiny the software provided.
Starting out, the company’s first customers were businesses in crisis management mode.
“We would come in with these data points and say ‘this is your problem’ in terms of communication and ‘this is what your solution should be,’” Rich said.
Slowly, the company added public relations agencies and foreign governments to its client list.
After 9/11, the U.S. government began expressing an interest in GNI’s services.
At the time, the Defense Department had one main goal: To study the propagation of radicalization in certain regions, Rich said.
“Who had the most influence in those markets? What was their position, their tone?” he said. “That was very useful for [the Pentagon] — to be able to quantify behavior over time.”
GNI’s software is “language-agnostic,” which means it is able to analyze media reports in any language that can be digitized, including Arabic, Farsi, German or French.
The company has since performed analysis for the State and Defense Departments. Most recently, GNI mapped the spread of influence in conflict regions such as Syria and Pakistan.
To Washington pollsters, the company’s work might appear similar to political analysis.
There are inherent similarities, Rich said. What sets GNI’s method apart, he said, is the ability to provide more immediate shifts in perspective instead of waiting for the analysis of poll results.
For example, if GNI’s software analyzes 500 media outlets over a certain period of time and notices that 100 reporters have started quoting an individual more often, that marks a rise in the person’s prominence, Rich said.
This is how the software works: Every quote in a story is tagged with metadata, such as who said it, where they said it, when, and which language was used (such as native or second language). In addition, the “stridency” of the language used is scored by looking at verbs and objects.
By tracking changes in the person’s tone, and using the contextual information provided by the metadata, clients can see how a person’s “voice” evolves over time, explained Peter LaMontagne, Novetta’s chief executive.
That information can help governments make strategic decisions, nonprofits plan a course of action in a remote country or companies make business moves, he said.
For instance, if a real estate company wants to start a large project in a certain location, it can analyze media coverage of past projects and identify the stakeholders, what positions they took, and how their opinions may have changed over time, LaMontagne said.
“An organization may conclude that if they want to succeed, they have to engage with, say, a grassroots organization that supports green measures,” he said. “So they would incorporate that into their proposal in order to get approval.”
Though it started out analyzing traditional media outlets, the rise of social media has expanded GNI’s work, Rich said.
Now, the company uses both traditional and social media analysis to help clients gain “situational awareness,” he said.
For example, GNI software can be used to map human rights violations in a region and try to identify perpetrators based on the tactics they use.
“Media and State Department officials can’t venture out in these areas,” he said. By mapping traditional news coverage of incidents and validating geographical locations using social media, “you’re able to see things that you couldn’t,” he said.
The company has also used its database of information on American news organizations to shed light on issues in the media. One example of GNI’s work that was cited by news organizations this year was its analysis of the media’s gender gap.
Commissioned by the Women’s Media Center, a Washington nonprofit, GNI’s study charted the number of women reporters across media organizations (including The Washington Post), the topics they cover, and the overall representation of women in news stories. The study found that women were still under-represented at most media organizations.
Selling GNI was not something Rich originally planned on.
“We were doing really well,” he said. “But to get to the next stage of automation of our technology, we either needed to take investments, form strategic partnerships or be acquired.”
Novetta did not provide information on GNI’s financial growth.
LaMontagne said Novetta’s constant search for “rich data sources and analytics capabilities” made GNI an attractive target.
The company approached Novetta to be a partner, but decided that acquisition was a better fit, Rich said.
“They got what we did and they wanted to keep us together,” he said.
The company employs 65 people, a mix of media analysts, academic researchers and policy experts, who are scattered across the world. GNI retained its District office and other locations after the deal.
Looking ahead, Rich said he expects growth opportunities from the commercial sector.
“Large companies are starting to act like nation-states,” he said. “They need tools to be able to manage and understand what’s happening around them.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.
More from Capital Business: