“Aggressively collaborative”


You could argue that all the new tools for visualizations — Google Fusion, Tableau, CartoDB, Infogr.am, and others — have helped the lonely journalist to continue working on his/her own, but in one way I think that those tools have increased the collaborations between the data journalist and developers, graphical artists and designers. The tools helped journalists to realize that a story does not necessarily have to be a headline, picture and text, but you could actually tell a story in a lot of different ways. And once they realized that, they also realized that yes, the easy tools were good for those first stories, but very soon they wanted more: more and better interactive graphics, and they realized that there were people out there who actually knew how to tell stories in other ways.

An example is the project with property prices that the Guardian did during the summer of 2015. It started with a database. And that is, for me, an unusual way of starting a story. Usually you have a story idea and then you set out to find data that will help you with that idea. In this case, we had the data, and wanted to find the stories. The data is a public dataset, found here. It contains of 19 million records of property sales in England and Wales from 1995 onwards. The dataset had been used before, mostly by commercial sites for finding properties for sale or for rent. They had chosen to display the latest sales for each area, so that was not something we wanted to do. Instead we realized the potential in having all the data from 1995 — we could really tell a story about how house prices have developed over the years. You could argue that there is nothing new there: prices have gone up, we know that.

My job at the Guardian is to collaborate. In the work description it even says that I and my team should be “aggressively collaborative” with the news desk, graphics, the interactive team and so on. So, in this case, I lifted my head and started talking to the interactive team right away. But it wasn’t until I also talked to one of the reporters that I realized what the story was. He had an idea of writing about a family in Islington, London, where the parents had bought an apartment when they were young and just starting a family. And now when their children wanted to do the same thing, they couldn’t afford a single apartment in London. So, we joked that they would have to move to the northern parts of England, because we assumed that flats would be cheaper there.

I then got the idea to compare the median price with the median income over the years and asked the HMRC for data by region from 1995 and forward. So, for the different regions in England and Wales I could do a comparison that showed that in 1995 the median price for a property was between 3 and 4 times the median income for that region. So, London was most expensive then too, with 4.4 times and the North West was the least expensive with 3.2 times. But, when I looked at the latest data available, I got a surprise. London had of course risen the most, to 12 times the median income, but even in the North West you had to pay 6 times the median income for the median house. So, if there is an old rule that says that banks will lend you 3 to 4 times your income, it’s not possible to buy a property anywhere. And with that information, the story got a new angle – and we could start sketching on an interactive visualization.

So, I prepared the data and put it into a PostgreSQL database and our interactive team started to work. But the great thing is that both them, and me, can lift our heads at any time saying, “Could we add a field with postcode district?” or, “I’ve managed to find about 24,000 of the 30,000 missing postcodes, you can now re-run your script.”

To be able to work together has improved the project immensely, and we can see how the story angle changes because of the interactive, as well as the other way around. You can see the final outcome on the Guardian’s website here

This article is an extract from a piece originally published by The Nieman Journalism Lab, republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. Read the full article here.

Photo: ep_jhu