3/10/2012

The Evolving Newsroom: Q&A with the Telegraph’s Interactive News Editor

 

The Evolving Newsroom is a series of Q&As with important names in the data journalism field, discussing how the newsroom is evolving to better incorporate data and data-driven journalism. To start things off, I've talked to Conrad Quilty-Harper, who is the Interactive News Editor for the Telegraph.

 

Please describe your day, beginning to end.

Quilty-Harper: I have kind of a split in types of work that I produce. One day I might be working on one to three one-off graphics, whether that’s charts or tables or some kind of interactive feature that represents the day’s news. We’ll produce a kind of quick-turnaround graphic that will go and amplify those stories, pick out a new angle in it that you can’t tell very well with words, pictures or videos, and is better told in an infographic sense. So there’s that, which is kind of the core activity; on top of that there’s more in-depth projects that might be on a week-long basis. [Someone] was working on a cycle map, so he came to us with this data and we found a story in it and we thought “How could we better represent it?” and that was something we worked on for a week or two before it went live. And then, on top of that, there’s even longer-term projects, which start to get into the data journalism territory of the Wikileaks project, investigations into government spending. Those are very in-depth, month-long projects. It’s kind of a mix of those three time scales, and depending on what’s in the news, what news you’ve got or what sources you’re working with, then you’ll adapt based on those three things. In terms of the day-to-day, I’ll do some forward planning looking at the diary for government calendars and what data releases are coming out, what will be on the agenda for tomorrow, what will be on the agenda for the next week, thinking how we can prepare for that. Generally we sit four or five people discussing what’s coming up, what’s happening now, and how can we adapt our tools in order to make a great graphic or advance some kind of story somewhere using data. 

MPs' constituencies: boundary changes mapped

How big is your team?

Quilty-Harper: I’m working with a team of four other people directly, which is not at full capacity yet but will be in the future. I’ve worked with the Lobby team quite closely, there’s about half a dozen journalists I’ve worked with on investigations for front page stories, interactives to go with front-page stories — our team works across the newsroom as well.

How do other news writers perceive of your work? 

Quilty-Harper: They generally get lots of benefit out of our work. Our graphics are generally highly supplementary to their stories, you want a good interactive to tell your story better. I’ve only had positive reactions from journalists at the Telegraph to my work. Data journalism is not a new thing, reporters have always worked with data and information that’s in a spreadsheet format or a list. The better word I prefer is “data-driven journalism.”

London's cycle accident black spots mapped

In the time you’ve been at the Telegraph, how has its newsroom changed, in relation to new technology or the open data movement? Do you perceive of there being any changes? Is it continual evolutionary process? 

Quilty-Harper: We’ve continually updated our tools and technology. We’re quite far ahead from where we were 18 months ago, in terms of tools we have available to ourselves and other reporters, in terms of charts and tables and processing data — but we haven’t stopped, we’re continually pushing forward with new tools and new techniques.  My favourite little piece of software is PDF2XL, which allows you to take scans and turn them into Excel. It’s quite a simple thing if you put it like that, but actually, if you’re under deadline and are trying to get some information up quickly, this is an invaluable tool and something I didn’t have a year ago. We also have a server that enables us to run PHP code... We’ve got databases now that we didn’t have before, that enable us to run bigger infographics and run our services — our tools and generators. That’s all new stuff.

What’s the most frustrating aspect of your job?

Quilty-Harper: Scanned PDFs, or data provided on the back of a piece of paper. Part of my job is about identifying areas that are bottlenecks in terms of data and how can we get access to this data in a structured format so we can create graphics around it or automate activity that people are manually doing.   

What’s your take on opening up the data behind stories? 

Quilty-Harper: I do it every story, every story you can access our data. We never hide our data. Mainly because, why would we hide it? We want people to read our stuff, why would we hide our information? If people want to know the workings behind our stuff, we’ll always release it. We’ll always release the methodology, so people can hold us to account as well. If we want to hold governments to account and ask them to be more transparent, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be more transparent ourselves. 

Is there any instance where somebody’s taken some of your data and done something really impressive with it? 

Quilty-Harper: One of my favourite examples was the other way around — the Guardian had worked with an academic on the new boundary changes released by the Boundary Commission as a draft proposal. We were really frustrated, because the Boundary Commission had not released any interactive, reusable maps — they had released 600 PDFs with individual images of maps, that we couldn’t show to our audience. So the Guardian contacted an academic in Sheffield, who managed to figure out how to use the table data and connect that to ward-level areas, and they created an interactive map and put it side-by-side. So what we did was take their data — which we’re allowed to do under the Creative Commons license they release their data under — and we improved on it by linking the two maps together. And the Guardian actually borrowed our design back — in terms of collaboration, that’s the best example of what two newspapers are capable of doing. They sourced the data, we improved on the interaction and provided our input, and they improved their design likewise.

Given the nature of sharing data and collaborative data, how would you describe your relation with other newsroom data teams? 

Quilty-Harper: Friendly! (laughs) We constantly take inspiration from other newsrooms. The New York Times is leading the field in this space and they have a massive team of 20-plus people, but we also try to take inspiration from the HTML5 movement as well. There’s quite a big culture of people out there who are just experimenting with new ways of displaying information, and new, open source tools you can use. We use a visual library I think an intern wrote somewhere in Chicago, and it’s where you take map boundaries and make them interactive, so you can click on them and change data. We use that tool and provide help to them, they provide help to us on how to update it and make it work. You’ve got Document Cloud, we’ve given some bug reports to them... There’s a whole bunch of tools out there and different bodies, making the harder tasks easier.  

How does social media — particularly Facebook and Twitter — inform the workflow of your day?

Quilty-Harper: Very much so. On a very simple level, if people are having technical difficulties with our applications and infographics, we will usually find out from them using Twitter and we can then send them a message saying we’ve fixed it. But also, taking the council credit card example again, that caused a dozen different stories in different areas, so you can track on social media how people are reacting to your story and see follow-up angles. People asking questions about your data or raising an interesting angle you might not have thought of, or put some context to it that makes it a better story — you can always track that. It’s very useful as sentiment tracking for what people are thinking about your work. News games using social media might be something we explore as well.

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