What I Learned about Data this Week


I plan to make a note of things I learn from my data journalism training work each week, not least as a note to myself.

This week I learned two things worth writing down, one theoretical, the other practical.

There was consternation that if they’re going to “deprecate” Google Reader, Google might also be planning to “deprecate” (er, stop running or supporting) Google Fusion Tables. In case you don’t know it this is a wonderful area of the Google empire which, among other things, makes the marriage of data and maps natural and easy. This was a timely reminder that it doesn’t pay to get too dependent on one particular tool, especially if it’s a free one. On the NICAR mailing list to which 1300 of us subscribe, this prompted a useful stream of suggestions of alternatives, including Tableau, Tilemill, and CartoDB. They’re not all free. But I aim to diversify myself a bit more, even if it costs a few euros.

My site of the week is opencorporates.com for hunting down companies, and finding out interesting things about them, not because it’s new, but because it gets better every time I use it. And now they’ve release an API for the site which is one of my “must get to knows” for the weekend. (Well, rain IS forecast!)

In other news, I was quizzing people I’ve trained about how much they’re using their new-found data skills. “Not much” was a depressingly common answer – “I don’t get taken off the rota to do data journalism” said one. In that case we’re talking at cross-purposes. Data journalism is many things – at the basic level it’s not being totally bamboozled when you open a spreadsheet; being able to parse the data quickly and methodically to find elements of a story which needs telling. At the far horizon you can find the major stories broken by the analysis of terabytes of data over many months, with many lines of code, maps, graphics – and this article was probably quite off-putting to some of the people just being trained in the basics of what they’re being told is data journalism.

I just hope that one day, quite soon, people regard the idea of being “taken off the rota to do data journalism” as as odd as being taken off the rota to use a keyboard!