Gavin Sheridan: Unbundling and Structuring the Fragmented

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Gavin Sheridan is the CEO and Founder of Vizlegal, a startup that converts fragmented legal information into structured data and provides tools for the legal and other industries to use this information. Before that Gavin was the Director of Innovation for Storyful, all the while he sued NAMA for failure to provide information under the Freedom of Information Act, which the agency lost in the Supreme Court. I talked to him about his early days of blogging and social media, as well as the journey of figuring out the problem that needs solving.

You are one of Ireland’s first bloggers, how did that come about?
I started blogging in 2002. 9/11 had just happened, the war in Iraq was about to begin, and blogging was becoming a big thing for covering politics. That year the Guardian gave out the first blog awards in May. I was reading a lot of blogs and figured I should start one as well. There were no real blogger services at the time, so I bought a domain name, did pure HTML and then used one of the early blogging Content Management Systems built by Dave Winer, the inventor of RSS – Radio Userland.

What were the topics you were writing about?
Everything from 3D printing human organs to national and international politics. Blogging was a path for me to get into journalism. Pursuing that, in March 2003, I got an internship at the New Statesman in London. After I came back to Ireland, I studied History and Politics at UCC. In 2006, I started full time in the Irish Examiner while still in university.

When did you get engaged in the social media space?
I created a Twitter account in August 2008 because I was going to Georgia, which Russia had just invaded. I needed a way to text message updates from the field. I was experimenting with what is now called ‘mojo’ or ‘mobile journalism’ – self-producing journalism in the field using cheap tools. I had a DSLR, a video camera, a notebook laptop and a phone and I was experimenting to see what journalism would look like in the future. I continued the experiment later that year, during Obama’s last few weeks campaigning and into his inauguration in early 2009.

When did you think, wow social media is working?
The first time I figured out Twitter was fascinating was during that trip to the US. We were in Cleveland for one of Obama’s last speeches before the election. On the way to the event where Bruce Springsteen was playing, my friend and I stopped at a bar. He had to file a story and needed wifi. Later that evening, I recorded bits of the speech and took photos and tweeted them. After the speech, someone tweeted to me: “I just want to say thanks for keeping me updated with the event. I couldn’t make it down myself because I’m working in the bar you just left.” Then he sent another tweet: “Will you guys come down after? I’ll buy you both a beer.” I thought wow, Twitter is a thing because we got a free beer! He had been looking for photographs on Twitter of the event, came across mine and then saw in my feed that I had been in his bar.

Were these revelations part of the inspiration behind Storyful?
There were a few things at play. In the summer of 2009, the Iranian revolution sparked, and I was using Twitter to track what was going on there (and so was Mark). I watched a lot of the now-infamous videos of protests. Earlier in 2009, I was at Fianna Fáil’s annual political conference where I met Mark Coughlan. He had similar ideas where the media industry was going and wanted to try new things. We were two of a small group live blogging and tweeting from the conference. We stayed in touch afterwards. At the time Mark was interning with Prime Time, which Mark Little was hosting. One day, Mark Little asked Mark if he knew someone who is interested in the future of media. Mark Little dropped me an email and said, “Mark Coughlan says you’re the man to talk to. Would you like to get coffee?”

One coffee turned into many coffees and breakfasts throughout June and July 2009. He was still figuring out what he was going to do so we bounced a lot of ideas off each other. He had a lot of interesting ideas around social media storytelling. I had ideas around gathering information from mobile devices because of the work I’d done in Georgia and the US using mobile devices.

He wrote the business plan in the autumn and in November asked me if I would move to Dublin. He had decided to leave RTE to see where we could go with this. We had a few pints that night, and at the end of the evening, I agreed. I left my job in the Irish Examiner and moved to Dublin. I started in the yet unnamed company on March 1st, 2010.

Did you know what Storyful would be doing by this point?
We had a broad idea around social media-driven storytelling. We wanted to shorten the distance between journalists and their audiences through the use of authentic social media content. We believed that a tweet, a YouTube video, and text told a story better. We worked on that idea between March and December that year. Contrast, the company of the people who ended up later founding Intercom, built our CMS, and in August we launched the beta. Storify came out around the same time with a similar idea – social media storytelling using atoms of social content.

Did you feel like you needed to switch the model to be competitive?
Yes but also at the end of 2010 we witnessed something extraordinary. The Tunisian uprising began, and there was an unreal amount of content on social media. Graphic videos of the protests were coming in from the capital and throughout the country. There’s something serious happening that we hadn’t seen before. But the mainstream media wasn’t really watching those videos. It almost felt they were missing the story because they weren’t watching them. Mark and I talked a lot about how this ‘citizen’ journalism is much bigger than people are realising. It was when we started evolving our model to build a newsroom that sources this content, verifies it’s accurate and gets permission to use it if necessary.

How did you grow that newsroom?
I contacted a bunch of my friends, many of whom I used to work with at the Irish Examiner and others I had met through blogging. One thing that helped us grow was the amount of news events that happened in 2011 – revolutions in six or seven countries, the Japanese tsunami, the London riots, the death of Osama Bin Laden. It was a crazy year. Between early 2012 and into 2013 we started scaling up the software and built features for recommendations, event detection and content discovery. Later in 2013 News Corp bought us.

What was your working relationship with Mark Little in all this?
The way Mark puts is that Mark was the Steve Jobs and I was the Steve Wozniak. Mark was the visionary CEO, and I was the technical hands-on person who had to come up with the ways to find and verify videos. Since we were doing it manually, we had to know Tweetdeck and other tools inside out, as well as YouTube, Google Earth, and Google Maps.

Because I’d been blogging for the previous decade, I knew many of these techniques already. I knew what it took to get a YouTube video from Syria and figure out with 99.9% degree of accuracy it was genuine. That’s not a skill that’s native to journalism because they’ve never learned it in college and they never have to in the newsroom either. I’d experimented with it for years. We had to be technical, but we also had to be good storytellers.

How did Vizlegal come to be?
All along my time at Storyful, I was doing a lot of Freedom of Information (FOI) work. I had gotten interested in it around the same time I was meeting Mark in 2009. Just before starting with Storyful, I had sent a request for information from the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). They declined to provide it on the basis that they are not a public authority subject to access to information on the environment (AIE) requests. I didn’t agree, so I appealed the matter to the then Information Commissioner, Emily O’Reilly. In September 2011, she ruled in my favour, and in the next few years, the case went through more appeals. Eventually, NAMA lost the case at the Supreme Court.

What I saw in this case and generally in the legal space, was a problem very similar to what we had noticed while building Storyful. There was so much information to sift through to find the data you need. The websites and resources were unfit for the purpose of finding anything useful. I thought someone should find a better way to go through these resources. All these thoughts were bubbling in my head after the acquisition. I stayed on for six months but then decided I wanted to fix that problem in the legal space. I had an idea for a prototype and at the end of 2014 started working on a prototype. That would become Vizlegal.

What was your core idea?
To find a way to structure all the data and streamline it into something useful. Even back in 2012, we had started experimenting with machine learning in Storyful, training machines to detect events. But for that, you need a huge quantity of structured data. In Storyful we were building systems to deal with the APIs of Facebook, Twitter, etc. The information is already structured, which allows for a lot of interesting things: analyses, the creation of filtering systems, building algorithms to detect events and intelligence mining. No such APIs exist in the legal space though – it’s often just websites with slow search systems that go through text.

The volume of information is huge, with new regulations from parliaments, judgments and filings from courts, it’s all very hard for practitioners. I knew much of the data was there but it needed structuring, and I saw an opportunity in this.

What are the plans for Vizlegal?
We’re working hard to keep expanding the amount of data that we have to start building out our intelligence and our understanding of the data that we’re collecting. We want to expand into the UK market, and keep onboarding customers in Dublin. We will be making moves into the US and look to land customers in both the media and law space.

How has it felt doing all this in Dublin?
Great, because there’s a lot of goodwill here from people building companies. They collaborate and share experiences (over pints usually!). No one cares where the other person is from. If you’re building something a lot of the initial questions when you meet other entrepreneurs is how they can help you. The community is cohesive, and it also doesn’t take much to get introduced to someone in Dublin. It is great to be in such an easy-going and tolerant place – and we should work hard to keep it that way.

Picture by Shane O’Neill Photography.

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