A data journalist’s microguide to environmental data


With the recent onslaught of hurricanes, such as Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and wildfires in Spain, Portugal and California, data journalists have been working hard to interpret scientific data, as well as getting creative to make it reader friendly.

The COP23 (do I hear climate change?) also serves as a great opportunity for data journalists to take a step back and ask:

What is the best way of reporting on data related to the environment? Where do you find the data in the first place? How do you make it relatable to the public and which challenges do you face along the way?

We gathered seven amazing experts on the Data Journalism Awards Slack team on 5 October 2017 to tackle these questions. Tim Meko of The Washington Post (USA), Gustavo Faleiros of InfoAmazonia (Brazil), Rina Tsubaki of European Forest Institute (Spain), Kate Marvel of NASA GISS (USA), Elisabetta Tola of Formicablu (Italy), Octavia Payne and James Anderson of Global Forest Watch (USA), all took part in the discussion.

Here is a recap of what we’ve learned including tips and useful links.

Environmental data comes in many formats…only known by scientists

When it comes to working with environmental data, both journalists and scientists seem to be facing challenges. The main issue seems not to come from scarcity of data but rather from what journalists can do with it, as Elisabetta Tola of Formicablu (Italy) explained:

‘Things are still quite complicated because we have more data available than before but it is often difficult to interpret and to use with journalistic tools’, she said.

There also seems to be a gap between the speed at which data formats evolve in that area and how fast journalists learn how to work with these formats.

‘I think we are still in a moment where we know just a little about data formats. We know about spreadsheets and geodata, but then there are all these other formats, used only by scientists. And I am not really sure how we could use those’, said Gustavo Faleiros of InfoAmazonia (Brazil).

Environmental data should be more accessible and easy to interpret and scientists and journalists should be encouraged to work hand-in-hand more often. The existing incentive structure makes that hard: ‘Scientists don’t get paid or promoted for talking to journalists, let alone helping process data’, said Kate Marvel of NASA GISS (USA).

So what could be done to make things better?

“We need to open up more channels between journalists and scientists: find more effective ways of communicating’, said Elisabetta Tola of Formicablu.

We also need more collaboration not just among data journalism folks, but with larger communities.

‘Really, it is a question of rebuilding trust in media and journalism’, said Rina Tsubaki of European Forest Institute.

‘I think personalising stories, making them hyper-local and relevant, and keeping the whole process very transparent and open are key’, said James Anderson of Global Forest Watch.

Indeed, there seems to be a need to go further than just showing the data: ‘People feel powerless when presented with giant complex environmental or health problems. It would be great if reporting could go one step further and start to indicate ‘what’s the call to action’. That may involve protecting themselves, engaging government, responding to businesses’, said James Anderson of Global Forest Watch.

'It would be great to have something like Hacks&Hackers where scientists and journalists could work together. Building trust between these communities would improve the quality of environmental reporting but also the reward, at least in terms of public recognition, of scientists work', suggested by Elisabetta Tola of Formicablu.

To make environmental data more ‘relatable’, add a human angle to your story

As the use of environmental data has become much more mainstream, at least in American media markets, audiences can interact more directly with the data than ever before.

‘But we will have to find ways to keep innovating, to keep people’s attention, possibly with much more personalised data stories (what does the data say about your city, your life in particular, for example)’, said James Anderson of Global Forest Watch.

‘Characters! People respond to narratives, not data. Even abstract climate change concepts can be made engaging if they’re embedded in a story’, said Kate Marvel of NASA GISS.

For example, this project by Datasketch, shows how Bogotá has changed radically in the last 30 years. ‘One of the main transformations’, the website says ‘is in the forestation of the city as many of the trees with which the citizens grew have disappeared’.

Image: Datasketch shows how Bogotá has changed radically in the last 30 years and include citizen’s stories of trees.

With this project, Juan Pablo Marín and his team attached citizen stories to specific trees in their city. They mapped 1.2 million trees and enabled users to explore narrated stories by other citizens on a web app.

‘I like any citizen science efforts, because that gets a community of passionate people involved in actually collecting the data. They have a stake in it’, James Anderson of Global Forest Watch argued.

He pointed out to this citizen science project where scientists are tracking forest pests through people’s social media posts.

Tips on how to deal with climate change sceptics

‘Climate denial isn’t about science — we can’t just assume that more information will change minds’, said Kate Marvel of NASA GISS.

Most experts seem to agree. ‘It often is more of a tribal or cultural reaction, so more information might not stick. I personally think using language other than ‘climate change’, but keeping the message (and call to action to regulate emissions) can work’, said James Anderson of Global Forest Watch.

A great article about that, by Hiroko Tabuchi, and published by The New York Times earlier this year can be found here: In America’s Heartland, Discussing Climate Change Without Saying ‘Climate Change’.

‘Keeping a high quality and a very transparent process can help people who look for information with an open mind or at least a critical attitude’, Elisabetta Tola of Formicablu added.

A great initiative where scientists are verifying media’s accuracy: Climate Feedback, shared by Rina Tsubaki of European Forest Institute.

This is an extract of GEN's microguide to environmental data. Read the full guide here.

Image: NASA.