Using big data and AI to fill the digital Arabic content void

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When it comes to digital content there’s not much out there in Arabic.

In fact, according to data released in the 2016 Media in the Middle East report by Northwestern University’s Qatar campus, it stands at only 2 percent, despite the MENA region currently comprising of more than 350 million people with an internet penetration of more than 50 percent.

A gap this large was something Spaniard David Llorente couldn’t resist addressing with his latest startup Narrativa. Narrativa, which means “narrative” in Spanish, is a multilingual content creation solution that is the result of an idea that CEO Llorente and his cofounders thought of in early 2015.

In essence, it uses technology to create written content for clients at a substantially cheaper price vis-à-vis the costs of hiring a human writer.

The clients are in sectors such as journalism and ecommerce: by using Narrativa’s distinct GabrieleAI technology they can save money on the production of recaps about football matches and descriptions of products for sale, respectively. The founding team calls it “smart content automation” on their website.

The founding team leverages their previous experience working with AI and big data in order to turn readily available data into 'narratives' in an easily readable, human-like format in languages such as English, Spanish, German and Arabic.

Narrativa’s technology means that companies and governments can generate millions of narratives a day, when a human would produce about four. They say the marginal cost of less than five cents per narrative (versus hundreds of dollars it would cost a human to do it).

Narrativa is hardly alone in this space: it includes the aptly-named American company Automated Insights and another US-based competitor called Narrative Science.

"At the same time we allow our customers to monetize their data and improve the services provided to their own customers,” said Llorente. For example, instead of simply buying stats you can buy articles generated with those stats, that you would then sell advertising for.

Along with Llorente’s operational experience, gained through launching four startups and studying entrepreneurship at MIT, Narrativa’s cofounders include Llorente’s fellow Spaniards Dr. Eugenio Fernandez (chief scientist specializing in AI) and Antonio Moratilla (chief technology officer specializing in big data and software). The latter two both have strong backgrounds in academic research and are currently professors in Spain at the University of Alcalá.

Data from the ‘Media industries in the Middle East 2016’ report by Northwestern University Qatar and Doha Film Institute about online content in Arabic in MENA countries. (Data via Mideastmedia.org)

Regional results

Llorente credits part of his team's recent success - including finding clients in the Arab world - to recently participating in a cycle of the digital media startup accelerator Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi.

Arabic content wasn’t the original plan for the team, literally just to plug a content gap, so, for them, coming to the UAE has been a game changer, helping them fine tune their product and understand the MENA region better. “In only three months we were able to sign one of the biggest media companies in the region and we are in the process of closing another contract with a new ambitious and well funded ecommerce company," said Llorente.

"There is an increasing need and appetite for content in Arabic. At the same time there is an incredible amount of data available and ready to be used to generate narratives in Arabic, from sports to finance, energy, logistics, information and security."

Global growth goals

Llorente, who is now based in Madrid with his team but travels often to the UAE, says his team is buckled in for a year in which they hope to ride a wave headed straight to venture capital in a Series A round.

He honestly admits that courting investors while managing daily operations for existing customers and seeking out new ones is challenging because of all of the moving parts, yet he says it is a phase that Narrativa needs to undergo to reach the next level.

"2017 must be the year of growth. We are finishing some important changes in our technology and products that will allow us to onboard customers much faster. This, together with an increased commercial (sales) effort, will help us to growth exponentially.

“2017 should also be the year of profitability and the year of our Round A that will help us to move much faster."

Feature image Narrativa CEO David Llorente pitches his startup’s services at the Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi Demo Day, via David Llorente.

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