Data journalism has been practiced by journalists since the dawn of time. Fact-checking and raiding information for discrepancies is one of the main tenets of the profession, but what we understand to be ‘data journalism’ today is a term that has been thrown around for the past couple of years.
It refers to producing stories that specifically revolve around data, obtained through FOI requests, leaks, or simply publicly available sources like data.gov.uk. What has also produced an explosion in the idea of data as a form of journalism in its own right is the proliferation of tools like Many Eyes. A journalist can put in information one end and out the other comes a nice looking visualisation that should make that data slightly more appealing and understandable to the reader.
Journalists are now finding new supplements to add to their stories. They’re plotting stats on a map, they’re graphs showing local crime figures and some are even reluctantly starting to work with computer programmers, facilitated by organisations like ScraperWiki. Despite this, I can’t help thinking that the ‘data journalism’ tag is at best another buzzword and at worst misleading.
In its current state, I’m of the opinion that the majority of data journalism is just eye candy for other journalists. The reality is that our audience don’t really care about fancy visualisations. Visualisations don’t do any more than say “here’s the information, only it’s in the form of a picture instead of a spreadsheet”. Readers are more likely to care about the day to day aspect of news; what their local councillor is doing or why a local shop has closed down. Both those examples could be presented in a way that could be said to be ‘data journalism’, only I’d just prefer to just call it journalism.
If we’re constantly publishing data to please the geeks (I’m looking at you, Guardian) aren’t we simply guilty of falling back into the same pattern of news organisations as producer and reader as powerless consumer? Are we over-estimating the interest with which the public regard various pieces of data? It’s the same way that a high-minded and idealistic graduate may approach the dream of becoming a foreign correspondent. Reporting on a humanitarian crisis and exposing the things that led to it is unquestionably a paradigm of journalistic excellence. But do the public really care? We are bombarded with so many images of war, famine and horrific scenes of human conflict that ultimately one becomes quite desensitized. The point being that people care more about the planned proposal to build a block of flats next to their house than corruption and war in Africa; it’s that day to day aspect of news again.
So why should the public care about data? Well, it’s our job to make them care. How can we make sure that we’re working with data as a legitimate means of storytelling, rather than just because it looks cool? I recently produced a visualisation for someone who was writing a story about university course approval ratings. The story came from the writer’s picking apart of the data and making it relevant to the reader. It questioned why certain courses had dire opinions of their tutors’ feedback, and why less than half of one course thought that academic support on their course was deemed acceptable. So the piece originated from a piece of data, but why call it data journalism? Its execution was exactly the same as attending a council meeting and picking apart the minutes, or talking to a local business about profits and business from the last quarter. Both of those examples originate from data, but neither of them would be classified today as data journalism.
I’d like the Open Data movement to take a more evangelical and mainstream approach to lobbying organisations to publicly release data. They have to realise that the majority of people don’t actually care about the vast majority of data published because it isn’t relevant to their everyday lives. The MPs expenses story ran for so long because it genuinely caught the public eye. They could see the relevance of this information in all constituencies, with people they knew and had either elected or voted against in elections gone by. It’s an example where the data was meaningful and also was the story, but its example is all too rare.
The last Wikileaks dispatch, arguably the biggest piece of data journalism to date, still failed to do that. Does anyone apart from a metropolitan elite really care what’s going on in US embassies? Perhaps they should, but I don’t think they do. And I think the biggest pitfall of ‘data journalism’ as a movement is that it’s making a lot of journalists shout when no one is listening.
The event was supported by the Guardian Open Platform, Inside the M60, Journal Local, MEN Media and the Digital Editors Network. ScraperWiki have done an extensive run through of the day’s events on their blog, and Andy Dickinson has also written about Friday’s goings on.
I was filming throughout the day and put together a short package which you can see below.
Update: I’ve been alerted to the fact that some people have already been working on this for Manchester, but it’s been under wraps until now. Nonetheless, we’re going to co-operate and hopefully produce something in the near future. The post below still stands as a mission statement, but I’ll leave it up to the concerned parties to announce where Hacks/Hackers Manchester is headed.
Hacks/Hackers is an organisation in the US that encourages people from journalism and technology communities to come together. Recently they leapt across the pond with last week’s launch of Hacks/Hackers London. A whole new realm of possibilities can be created from this kind of participation.
It’s with this in mind that I’d like to announce the formation of a similar event for Manchester. The city already has a friendly, knowledgeable and prolific journalism and digital scene. It’s already very open to collaboration, and events like the Social Media Cafe regularly show that people from across all industries frequently come together to chat and exchange ideas. I’ve been in touch with Hacks/Hackers HQ as to whether we’ll officially integrate into their wider online community, but we certainly have goals and aspirations that are in line with their mission statement.
In many ways, data-driven journalism has been thrown into the mainstream by the recent coverage of Julian Assange’s Wikileaks over the past month. For many people, it represents a goldmine of new opportunities and strategies. With Columbia University launching a combined master’s degree in journalism and computer science, and national newspapers starting to specifically employ coders, journalists are grasping the nettle and widen their understanding of the web to implement ideas previously written in a notepad and never followed up.
I’ve always wanted to be able to make data visualisations, and that’s now possible by presenting a coder with the raw information and letting them get to work on the nitty gritty. The value of this is two-fold. First, I can use these projects to better engage a reading audience and add value to text-only stories. Second, coders (hopefully) get an exciting project to work on using real statistics as a form of digital storytelling.
By virtue of this, Manchester is the ideal place to launch another branch of Hacks/Hackers. A passionate hyperlocal scene in the northwest (the likes of Inside the M60, Blog Preston and Saddleworth News) has already shown it’s the ideal proving ground for innovation. Hacks/Hackers Manchester has the potential to be a really worthwhile event that can enrich new forms of journalism by harnessing the power of data and programming proficiency, as well as providing a social event for people who are interested in the ideas listed above.
I’m meeting with a few people next week in order to think through some strategies to get it going, and we’ll be presenting a few ideas at the next Manchester Social Media Cafe. If you’re a coder looking to collaborate with some journalists or vice versa, then come along to hear what we’ve come up with. Alternatively if you fall into neither of the above then feel free to turn up as well! The concept is very much in an embryonic stage and we welcome ideas from everyone.