Four Lessons from Hacking Data for Hacks at O’Reilly Strata in London


Monday and Tuesday this week saw the first European edition of O’Reilly Media’s Strata conference, one of the major conferences in the world of everything data. The European Journalism Centre and the Open Knowledge Foundation had the pleasure of hosting a panel discussion on data journalism with Aron Pilhofer (New York Times), Mirko Lorenz (Deutsche Welle), and Nicolas Kayser-Bril (Journalism++).


The panel (left to right: Nicolas Kayser-Bril, Mirko Lorenz, Aron Pilhofer and Liliana Bounegru)

Below are four lessons for journalists and media organisations hoping to get started in data journalism:

1. Collect your own data 

Aron Pilhofer opened the discussion by giving two examples of how journalists can use innovative sourcing techniques to produce original stories and projects.

When New York Times reporters Walt Bogdanich and Griffin Palmer set out to investigate an undocumented problem at US racetracks, the fact that horses are getting injured on the tracks at incredible rates, no database existed to monitor these incidents. Results of races are compiled into databases and charted in order for gamblers to be able to evaluate horses’ performances, however, and for every race involving an injury the report would contain a code. The reporters ingeniously used this data collected for very different purposes and adapted it for to their own needs, which resulted into the investigative series Death and Disarray at America’s Racetracks.

Pilhofer also urged journalists to tap into the potential of user-generated content and consider their readership as a source of data. To illustrate their potential he used the example of the LA Times’ Mapping LA project, in which the newspaper asked readers to help map the changing and often contested boundaries of neighbourhoods in the Los Angeles County.

2. Start developing services

“One of the great opportunities I see right now going on is the fact that you see more and more services by journalists. They used to write articles all the time and now you see them developing services,” said Kayser-Bril.

From US homicide mapping projects that share information about crime in communities, to Kayser-Bril’s own service in the making, Feowl, a project to give citizens, journalists and businesses of Cameroon, reliable data about electricity supply and the risk of power cuts, journalists can now provide useful, data-powered information services to their communities.

3. Invest in data analysis

For many journalists who want to learn the skills necessary for working with data, the most sought-after skillset is the ability to create beautiful visualisations, says Kayser-Bril, who is a trainer in the field. This attitude can pose a risk for the accuracy of stories told with visualisations: “People are interested to learn to visualise data but they don’t think that they need to learn to analyse data and learn statistics,” he said.

Another consequence of the enthusiasm for data and easy-to-use tools, Pilhofer believes, is the fact that we witness a lot of really bad data visualisations in a lot of newsrooms. “The opposite side of the coin of all these tools and technologies becoming available and making data visualisation easier than ever, the 'Tableaus' of the world, they’re really powerful tools, but you can make utterly misleading data visualisations very easy with these tools. And that I think is the potential risk.”

“What is missing from all the charts we see at the moment is that they don’t show how it relates to you and me,” added Lorenz.

4. Newsrooms need data scientists and data centres need journalists

There is a rising need in newsrooms for new kinds of specialists, from data scientists, to developers and 3D motion graphics experts. At the same time, as companies and organisations of all kinds collect more and more data on various topics, whether this is their activities, products or customers, the journalistic skill of storytelling becomes important to these companies for presenting informed insights based on this data. Kayser-Bril urged organisations that sit on a lot of data to consider someone with storytelling capabilities, such as a journalist, as telling compelling stories is not a trivial task.


Image credits: O'Reilly Conferences