Much to be excited about after Amsterdam’s “data driven journalism” conference
Last week, the European Journalism Centre and the University of Amsterdam organized “the first round table on data-driven journalism.” While their proclamation as ‘first’ may be debatable, there is definitely an increasing interest in this topic, as I just highlighted a similar seminar by The Poynter Institute back in July. I saw quite a lot of buzz about it (including a write-up over at Journalism.co.uk) so Mirko Lorenz, a free-lancing information architect mainly working for Deutsche Welle and organizer for the EJC, and I swapped some emails to learn more about what is being discussed around the world in regards to information visualization for journalistic purposes.
Q) What do you mean by data-driven journalism?
A) The short and more/less accepted definition is: Data-driven journalism (DDJ) is a process, where large amounts of data can be filtered for patterns and facts, visualized and form the basis for reporting and storytelling (including Multimedia pieces).
DDJ is not “computer-assisted reporting”. This is a technique, that was and will be used by specialists, e.g. in investigative journalism. The difference might be put this way: In CAR you dig for certain facts, in DDJ you try to make the data flow from unfiltered to highly filtered – making people see the truth or the point of a issue (which might include CAR).
DDJ is not exactly database-journalism, again: It’s about making data flow, not just piling it up. The difference may be subtle, but I think its relevant.
Lastly, DDJ is definitely not content farming or just news aggregation. Both techniques have their roles and I do read TechMeme, but our hope is that data-driven journalism will become a basis for new income streams in the future.
From a multimedia journalists view look at Mediastorm’s “Never coming home” or “The Sandwich Generation“. Both stories are basically driven by numbers and statistics. So, it’s very important to connect the numbers with good narrative.
Q) In Journalism.co.uk’s post, it mentioned that you have a “vision of a newsroom where journalists would work together with designers and developers.” Can you expand on this?
A) Frankly, I do not believe in the idea that journalists must learn how to code. And this became quite obvious in several presentations in Amsterdam. Surely there will be journalists/coders (like Adrian Holovaty), but not as the norm. If data-driven reporting gets bigger, we will need “teams of specialists”, where every member does what he really can do best. The murky zone here is that journalists will have do develop a new view on using tools, digging in large piles of data and trying to make sense of it. But this just asks for a curious mind, not a deep knowledge in code.
One thing though that is only partly understood is how to implement working with data in newsrooms. The common approach at The Guardian or the New York Times is to bring developers and editors closer together. And it is wise to minimize the scope: Whether blogging or working in a big newsroom, focus on the story and search for tools or hacks that help you tell it better. Do not launch into renovating the whole CMS.
Q) Is this possible everywhere or just in large newsrooms? Do you think writers are going to have to adjust, or programmers, or both?
A) Both sides have to adjust: Programmers working in newsrooms should understand the story and work accordingly. Journalists must develop a feeling for what can be done – at best, they have formed a basic knowledge how to instruct a developer. Right now, what we can learn from the practitioners is that it is best to form small teams – this seems to be the way in both small and large media organizations. The speakers at the data-driven journalism roundtable in Amsterdam basically all told the same story on this.
Quite a bit of the Guardian’s successes in the data-journalism field (MP Expense scandal, Afghanistan War Logs) can be attributed to their ability to move quickly. It took them just roughly two weeks to have a crowdsourcing platform, where about 400.000 documents of MP expenses from the UK could be reviewed by readers. It is still accessible and is elegantly simple. As a result they quickly had about 40.000 readers helping the editors to sift through the pile of documents. Check it out: One click and you have access to documents. No address harvesting, no content farming – just a novel and easy way to engage readers.
Alan McLean from The New York Times stressed the need that writers and developers are working closely together, at best desk by desk.
Once media organizations accept that data and the web are a platform for reporting and not just distributions, McLean labeled the possibilities in this space as “almost too easy”. They seem to have a running joke at the NYT, giving high five once they did a new visualization or data story yelling “Journalism saved!”
Another, very uplifting presentation came from Tony Hirst, who is a lecturer at the Open University in the UK. He demonstrated how you can connect to spreadsheets on Wikipedia and then use tools such as Google Docs, Yahoo Pipies and Google Maps to display data very quickly and easily. No coding, really. But you have to know the recipe. Tony is just great in showing what you can do.
Q) Do you think this conference lived up to its expectations?
A) I really think so, judging from what speakers and people from the audience said, plus positive articles and quite a few re-tweets. The point here is that these trailblazers for the first time had an opportunity to talk to each other and share experiences. That was the main idea that led us to invite for this invent: Bring the “lone wolves” to one table. One other indicator: Almost no one we had invited declined, if so that was for reasons such as being on long-planned holidays.
When starting the planning for this event we had some fears that we might get only 12, 15 people in total for this. It turned out differently, with 16 speakers and about 40-45 guests. We actually had to turn away quite a few that were interested to come.
Q) Lastly, what place do you think conferences have in the innovation process?
A) This one was good, but when these conferences get too big, the impact goes down. The “round-table format” had the effect that like-minded people talked about shared experiences, more like a university class. This worked well. In tech the interests in possible directions can diverge very quickly. This might be especially important for innovation in journalism, because our work is affected by so many intersecting crafts: Writing, visualizing, video, photos, now code – journalists must be very careful to stay on track.
The unifying goal is storytelling. So (I hope) this comes as a relief – whether you do classical reporting or get stories from data, the story is still the center piece of it all.
Tags: Adrian Holovaty, Alan McLean, computer-assisted reporting, Data-driven journalism, European Journalism Centre, Journalism.co.uk, Mirko Lorenz, Tony Hirst