DATA: Where are we?

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the Futureeverything conference in Manchester about data journalism. I was on a panel with three people who are been right at the forefront of datajournalism, which rather begged the question as to what I could add. Those three were Paul BradshawChris Taggart who founded Openlylocal (and someone every journalist needs to thank) and the Guardian’s Martin Belam.

So, in my five minute slot, I decided to try and look at what we’ve learnt about journalism in the regional press so far.  The key themes were:

  • Data journalism isn’t a fad. The tools might be new, and the volume of data might be new, but data journalism isn’t new.
  • Data journalism isn’t easy journalism. It isn’t about just taking data and making a map. It only works when journalists ask the question: ‘How do I make this interesting and useful to readers?’
  • Data journalism shouldn’t be a passive process of interpreting datas other choose to release – we need to be asking for data  (FOI here!)
  • Context is key. Data for data’s sake makes no sense for readers.

Here’s the speech, if that isn’t too grand a phrase:

My favourite response so far to a discussion I had with a journalist about data was this: “It’s just a fad. It’ll go away. Just like Twitter will.”

Ok, so that’s an extreme, but there is a danger that when we talk about data journalism, journalists dismiss it as ‘something we’ve always done.’

In a way, that response is correct. Journalists have played with data for a long time. Spreadsheets of data from government are hardly new. Spotting the best or worst of something, or the % change for an area is nothing new either.

What is new is the volume of data and the supposed free availability of data. At the same time, audiences increasingly expect to see the data stories are built with for themselves.

Another response I sometimes hear is that open data is a threat to journalism, because it pushes all the information out for people to find for themselves.

Again, it’s an argument which misses the point, If someone has wanted to find something out, they’ve always set out to find it. Journalism, especially at a local level, has always been about telling people things which will be of interest but which readers won’t have necessarily known they needed to know.

Sites like are brilliant starting points for finding data, but by no means perfect. The challenge for a journalist is to find information which is interesting to the reader.

The wealth of  data visualisation tools – manyeyes, tableau, google fusion, even trusty old google docs, make it very easy to filter and present large sets of data in a way which can boggle the mind.

But there comes with it a risk of a ‘look at me’ culture. Getting hold of a dataset and plotting it on a map or turning it into a chart might be fun, but it’s not enough.

It’s just the start – it helps find the stories, and it helps release the data so readers can interact with it. But we need to ask if it makes our journalism useful.

Done well, it works brilliantly. The Manchester Evening News crunched the data from the Greater Manchester Police 24-hour tweetathon to determine a variety of things – busiest borough for crime, most frequent type of call and so on. The charts updated in realtime through Google Docs. Its simplicity was its strength.

But it was also a good example of not being aware of the work which goes on in the background. That chart may have updated automatically, but the data still had to be interpreted for the spreadsheet in the first place. That was quite a task and proof of the importance of preparing data with a journalist’s mind.

Someone who wants to excel in data journalism needs to know more than just the tools which make for a good graphic. It does help, though.

Perhaps the most important skill for a journalist wishing to use data is the ability to give it context. Birmingham City Council was named as the area with the highest number of CCTV cameras a few months ago – but that’s not a surprise when you consider it is also one of the largest councils in the country. Context is key with data journalism.

Closely behind context is the need to keep on asking. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a lot of the data which is freely available now was freely available before. We should be continuing to seek out the data we know we want.

The Guardian’s datablog excels in this – pulling together the tuition fee plans of universities is a good example. The data won’t always be there on a plate for us.

Another example I think of here is the Birmingham Mail’s Race for a school place project. In the North East, information about the number of pupuls applying for school places at each school is freely available. In the Midlands, it’s only available under FOI.

And when that information arrives, it’s in a multitude of formats. PDFs, word documents, spreadsheets. One council even sends out data tables as jpegs – how very helpful. Further proof of the work needed to make data journalism sing.

As journalists, our biggest challenge is to keep pushing for data to become availabnle. Councils have to issue details of all spending over £500 – but some councils have decided to publish all spending because it’s cheaper to do so. As journalists, we should push for that to happen everywhere.

FOI is key here. The more we ask for something under FOI because it isn’t freely available, the greater the chance its release will become routine, rather than requested. That’s the challenge for today’s data journalists: Not creating stunning visualisations, but helping to decide what is released, rather than just passively accepting what’s released.

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