Posts Tagged ‘NICAR’

Although “data journalism” can encompass infographics, interactives, web apps, FOI, databases and a whole host of other numbering, coding, displaying techniques; the road less travelled-by has certain steps, turns and speed bumps. In that sense, here’s a list of things to tick off if you’re interested in going down the data journalism road:

  1. Know the legal boundaries – get to know the Data Protection Act 1998 and the sections on access to personal data and unstructured personal data held by authorities. Do not set foot on your journey without reading the section on exemptions relating to journalism. Use legislation as a reference by downloading the Mobile Legislate app.
  2. Look at data – get to know what is out there, what format it’s in and where it’s coming from. Places like, London Datastore, Office for National Statistics and Get the Data are good places to start for raw data but don’t forget, anything on the web is data. The best data are often hidden. Data can be text and pictures so even mining social media and catching the apps built from them can give you insight into what can be done with data.
  3. Read all about it – to make data and stats accessible you need to know how to frame them within a story. In that sense, you need to know how to undertand the stories they tell. That doesn’t mean going on a stats course. There are a lot of accessible reading material and I would recommend The Tiger That Isn’t.
  4. Get connected – find HacksHackers near you and join Meetup groups to point you in the right directions. Data journalists’ interests and abilities are unique to the individual (much like programmers) so don’t take text of advice as set in stone (the web changes too quickly for that!). Find your own way and your own set of people to guide you. Go to courses and conferences. Look outside the journalism bubble. Data is more than just news.
  5. Spread your bets – the easiest way to sort data is by using spreadsheets. Start with free options like Google Docs and OpenOffice. Industry standards include Microsoft Excel and Access. Learn to sort, filter and pivot. Find data you’re interested in and explore the data using your eyes balls. Know what each piece of software does and can do to the data before mashing it with another piece of software.
  6. Investigate your data – query it using the simple language SQL and the software MySQL. It’s a bit tricky to set up but by now you’ll know a hacker you can ask for help! Clean your data using Google Refine. There are tutorials and a help wiki. Know how these function not just how to navigate the user interfaces, as these will change. These products go through iterations much more quickly than the spreadsheet software.
  7. Map your data – from Google spreadsheets the easiest way to build a map is by using MapAList. There is a long list of mapping software from GeoCommons to ArcGIS. Find what’s easiest for you and most suitable for your data. See what landscapes can be revealed and hone in on areas of interest. Understand the limitations of mapping data, you’ll find devolution makes it difficult to get data for the whole of the UK and some postcodes will throw up errors.
  8. Make it pretty – visualize your data only once you fully understand it (source, format, timeframe, missing points, etc). Do not jump straight to this as visuals can be misleading. Useful and easy software solutions include Google Fusion Tables, Many Eyes and Tableau. Think of unique ways to present data by checking out what the graphics teams at news organizations have made but also what design sites such as Information is Beautiful and FlowingData are doing.
  9. Make your community – don’t just find one, build one. This area in journalism is constantly changing and for you to keep up you’ll need to source a custom made community. So blog and tweet but also source ready-made online communities from places like the European Journalism Centre, National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (NICAR), BuzzData and DataJournalismBlog.
  10. Scrape it – do not be constrained by data. Liberate it, mash it, make it useable. Just like a story, data is unique and bad data journalism comes with constraining the medium containing it. With code, there is no need to make the story ‘fit’ into the medium. “The Medium is the Message” (a la Marshall McLuhan). Scrape the data using ScraperWiki and make applications beyond story telling. Make data open. For examples check out OpenCorporates, Schooloscope and Planning Alerts. If you’re willing to give coding a try, this book called “Learning Python the Hard Way” is actually the easiest way to learn for the non-programmer. There is also a Google Group for Python Journalists you should join.
These are guidelines and not a map for your journey. Your beat, the data landscape, changes at the speed of web. You just need to be able to read the signs of the land as there’s no end point, no goal and no one to guide you.

And here’s what Tim Berner-Lee, founder of the internet, said regarding the subject of data journalism:

Journalists need to be data-savvy… [it’s] going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country

How the Media Handle Data:

Data has sprung onto the journalistic platform of late in the form of the Iraq War Logs (mapped by The Guardian), the MP’s expenses (bought by The Telegraph) and the leaked US Embassy Cables (visualized by Der Spiegel). What strikes me about these big hitters is the existence of the data is a story in itself. Which is why they had to be covered. And how they can be sold to an editor. These data events force the journalistic platform into handling large amounts of data. The leaks are stories so there’s your headline before you start actually looking for stories. In fact, the Fleet Street Blues blog pointed out the sorry lack of stories from such a rich source of data, noting the quick turn to headlines about Wikileaks and Assange.

Der Spiegel - The US Embassy Dispatches

So journalism so far has had to handle large data dumps which has spurred on the area of data journalism. But they also serve to highlight the fact that the journalistic platform as yet cannot handle data. Not the steady stream of public data eking out of government offices and public bodies. What has caught the attention of news organizations is social media. And that’s a steady stream of useful information. But again, all that’s permitted is some fancy graphics hammered out by programmers who are glad to be dealing with something more challenging than picture galleries (here’s an example of how  CNN used twitter data).

So infographics (see the Stanford project: Journalism in the Age of Data) and interactives (e.g. New York Times: A Peek into Netflix Queues) have been the keystone from which the journalism data platform is being built. But there are stories and not just pictures to be found in data. There are strange goings-on that need to be unearthed. And there are players outside of the newsroom doing just that.

How the Data Journalists Handle Data:

Data, before it was made sociable or leakable, was the beat of the computer-assisted-reporters (CAR). They date as far back as 1989 with the setting up of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting in the States. Which is soon to be followed by the European Centre for Computer Assisted Reporting. The french group, OWNI, are the latest (and coolest) revolutionaries when it comes to new age journalism and are exploring the data avenues with aplomb. CAR then morphed into Hacks/Hackers when reporters realized that computers were tools that every journalist should use for reporting. There’s no such thing as telephone-assisted-reporting.  So some whacky journalists (myself now included) decided to pair up with developers to see what can be done with web data.

This now seems to be catching on in the newsroom. The Chicago Tribune has a data center, to name just one. In fact, the data center at the Texas Tribune drives the majority of the sites traffic. Data journalism is growing alongside the growing availability of data and the tools that can be used to extract, refine and probe it. However, at the core of any data driven story is the journalist. And what needs to be fostered now, I would argue, is the data nose of a (any) journalist. Journalism, in its purest form, is interrogation. The world of data is an untapped goldmine and what’s lacking now is the data acumen to get digging. There are Pulitzers embedded in the data strata which can be struck with little use of heavy machinery. Data driven journalism and indeed CAR has been around long before social media, web 2.0 and even the internet. One of the earliest examples of computer assisted reporting was in 1967, after riots in Detroit, when Philip Meyer used survey research, analyzed on a mainframe computer, to show that people who had attended college were equally likely to have rioted as were high school dropouts. This turned the publics’ attention to the pervasive racial discrimination in policing and housing in Detroit.

Where Data Fits into Journalism:

I’ve been looking at the States and the broadsheets reputation for investigative journalism has produced some real gems. What stuck me, by looking at news data over the Atlantic, is that data journalism has been seeded earlier and possibly more prolifically than in the UK. I’m not sure if it’s more established but I suspect so (but not by a wide margin). For example, at the end of 2004, the then Dallas Morning News analyzed the school test scores of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and uncovered one school’s alleged cheating on standardized tests. This then turned into a story on cheating across the state. The Seattle Times piece of 2008, logging and landslides, revealed how a logging company was blatantly allowed to clear-cut unstable slopes. Not only did they produce and interactive but the beauty of data journalism (which is becoming a trend) is to write about how the investigation was uncovered using the requested data.

The Seattle Times: Landslides in the Upper Chehalis River Basin

Newspapers in the US are clearly beginning to realize that data is a commodity for which you can buy trust from your consumer. The need for speed seems to be diminishing as social media gets there first, and viewers turn to the web for richer information. News in the sense of something new to you, is being condensed into 140 character alerts, newsletters, status updates and things that go bing on your mobile device. News companies are starting to think about news online as exploratory information that speaks to the individual (which is web 2.0). So the The New York Times has mapped the census data in its project “Mapping America: Every City, Every Block”. The Los Angeles Times has also added crime data so that its readers are informed citizens not just site surfers. My personal heros are the investigative reporters at ProPublica who not only partner with mainstream news outlets for projects like Dollars for Doctors, they also blog about the new tools they’re using to dig the data. Proof the US is heading down the data mine is the fact that Pulitzer finalists for local journalism included a two year data dig by the Las Vegas Sun into preventable medical mistakes in Las Vegas hospitals.

Lessons in Data Journalism:

Another sign that data journalism is on the up is the recent uptake at teaching centres for the next generation journalist. Here in the UK, City University has introduced an MA in Interactive Journalism which includes a module in data journalism. Across the pond, the US is again ahead of the game with Columbia University offering a duel masters’ in Computer Science and Journalism. Words from the journalism underground are now muttering terms like Goolge Refine, Ruby and Scraperwiki. O’Reilly Radar has talked about data journalism.

The beauty of the social and semantic web is that I can learn from the journalists working with data, the miners carving out the pathways I intend to follow. They share what they do. Big shot correspondents get a blog on the news site. Data journalists don’t, but they blog because they know that collaboration and information is the key to selling what it is they do (e.g Anthony DeBarros, database editor at USA Today). They are still trying to sell damned good journalism to the media sector!  Multimedia journalists for local news are getting it (e.g David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror Regionals). Even grassroots community bloggers are at it (e.g. Joseph Stashko of Blog Preston). Looks like data journalism is working its way from the bottom up.

Back in Business:

Here are two interesting articles relating to the growing area of data and data journalism as a business. Please have a look: Data is the New Oil and News organizations must become hubs of trusted data in a market seeking (and valuing) trust.