Data Journalism à la Française: Interview with Le Monde’s Alexandre Léchenet


According to Alexandre Léchenet, there are fewer than 10 data journalists working in France’s mainstream media outlets. This makes him, Le Monde’s data visualisation specialist, a newsroom rarity. In order to promote communication among the small but growing community of data journalists in France, Pôle Décryptages, a team consisting of Léchenet (25) and 2 colleagues, founded J’ai du bon data, a blog on the newspaper’s website dedicated to open data, visualisations and their uses for story telling.

Launched at this year’s Open Knowledge Festival, J’ai du bon data is aimed not only at data journalists but also Le Monde’s wider audience, presenting Léchenet with the challenge of making issues like data mining, scraping and open source easy to understand. The blog has already garnered interest and Léchenet says he hopes to invite guests to discuss their projects in the future. For now though, he is concentrating on writing regularly and building the community.

“We want to have a place where we can talk about data journalism on LeMonde.fr so that people who have ideas know it’s the place to talk about it.”

Screenshot: J'ai du bon data (30 October 2012)


Compared with other European countries France’s mainstream media has been slow to embrace data journalism. Part of the reason for this, says Léchenet, are audience size and financial issues, “we don’t have the numbers of readers the English language newspapers and websites have, so it’s a lot of money to invest to get even one person for this kind of job.” France has nevertheless produced some prominent data journalists including Nicolas Kayser-Bril, who founded Journalism++ in Berlin and the team at OWNI, a Paris-based data journalism and investigative reporting website.

While the data journalism community is slowly growing, so is France’s open data movement. This year the national government launched an open data portal, and a number of towns and cities have done the same. Still, “there is also a cultural thing that, in France, people think if they have the data, they have the power” said Léchenet. As a result there are numerous grassroots lobby groups calling for more open data. Still, looking at the UK, where ministers’ travel, meetings and other data  is publicly available, Léchenet said, “I don’t think we will have anything like this in France for a long time.”

“They (the government) don’t understand that if they give out the data they can have feedback from journalists or citizens or companies…There is work to do to make them understand that giving access to data is not giving up power.”

At least one French agency that used to have data available on its website has now restricted access to it. For an investigative piece in Le Monde earlier this year, Léchenet and two other journalists scraped the website of France’s social security health insurance provider and found that some doctors in Paris were charging up to five times the amount reimbursed by the Sécurité Sociale for a consultation. After the article was published the data was taken off the website for ‘confidentiality’ reasons. Anyone requesting this data will now be given an analysis provided by the agency.

Could this scare other bodies away from open data? “On the contrary” said Léchenet, “it could be a good example of what we can do with data…I think it could have been a good opportunity for La Sécu (Social Security) to say ‘OK, maybe we could ask people to have a look at our data’ but instead they closed it again.”

Infographic: Surcharges for doctors' consultations in Paris by frequency and amount. Le Monde (2012)


Finally, what advice does Léchenet have for those interested getting started in data journalism? “My first advice would be to learn to use Excel and not to open Word or TextEdit to start an article but to open a spreadsheet and see if you can make an article out of the spreadsheet.” An article without words, at least in the beginning.