Data driven journalism: Making sense of the data deluge


As more social interactions and transactions are digitalised, making sense of all the publicly available data becomes increasingly difficult. The journalistic approach to sense-making of data has then become all the more necessary. This begs the question: How could tools that help journalists use available data more efficiently look?

To find out, I spoke with Tommaso Venturini, research coordinator for the médialab Sciences Po Paris, one of the partners in the project MACOSPOL, or MApping COntroversies on Science for POLitics.

Venturini opened my eyes to the emerging field of data-driven journalism, one of the directions journalism could move in the future. We discussed existing tools for gathering statistics, data-mining and visualisation and considered their potential for more effective storytelling.

Venturini’s project, MACOSPOL, is one of several efforts to accelerate the arrival of this data-driven journalistic future.

“Navigating datascapes is the challenge of future journalism”

In previous decades, journalists have relied on scientists, researchers, statisticians, analysts and infographics specialists to interpret digital datasets. These specialists are often asked to help journalists with the task of integrating, filtering and visualising raw data. The journalist remains more concerned with the process of running to the next compelling story. A data-driven journalist, though, is literate in data analysis. His work is enhanced by the new depths of information he/she can provide as a result.

Venturini is interested in developing new platforms for journalists and citizens who are interested in digging into data.

“Journalism has always provided citizens with an interface to explore the complexity of collective existence,” he explains in our interview.

“Even today, newspapers remain the best available interface to explore social data. Since a few years, however, newspapers have more and more trouble handling the deluge of information generated by digital technologies. Developing the platforms to navigate through the new digital datascapes is the challenge of future journalism.”

MACOSPOL: tools to understand controversies

Tommaso has worked for two years on the data-mapping project MACOSPOL (Mapping Controversies on Science for Politics). The idea is to develop a web-based platform that provides citizens, journalists and policymakers with instruments to make sense of controversies in technological and scientific issues by mapping and visually representing them. Are human activities contributing to climate change? Does the development of nanotechnologies have risks? Can genetically modified crops really contribute to the end of world hunger? These are all examples of scientific and technological controversies that can be explored with the sort of data mapping and visualisation tools put together on the MACOSPOL platform.

MACOSPOL is the result of a joint research group of seven European universities and one research centre. It is led by Bruno Latour, a philosopher and sociologist who is now a professor at Sciences Po Paris. Funding for the project comes from the Seventh Framework Programme of European Union.  At the core of the MACOSPOL project is the idea that the capabilities that facilitated the production of all web data can also be used for mapping and making sense of the data. The biggest challenge the project has encountered is integrating the different tools found online into a coherent platform to facilitate the construction of a solid “chain of treatment for digital data.”

Reinventing the newspaper?

According to Latour, the scientific coordinator of the project, the MACOSPOL platform is the equivalent of reinventing the newspaper. Venturini explains:

“If we are able to understand which are the functions that newspapers delivered to society, then we can stop complaining about the death of traditional journalism, stop thinking about how we can finance the traditional way of doing journalism and start thinking of how we can get the same thing through a different type of tools.”

MACOSPOL is essentially a collection of digital tools developed to facilitate the investigation or representation of an issue. These could be used for academic work, journalism or the general public. Interactive tutorials guide the use of these web-based instruments by journalists and decision makers.

How “hot” or “cold” is a current debate?

How effectively can journalists make use of these instruments when reporting on scientific and technological controversies, such as the role of human activities in climate change? For example: The tools of MACOSPOL enable journalists to visually interrogate data in order to determine the “temperature” of a controversy:

  • How intensely is the issue discussed?
  • Who reports on it today?
  • What is the partisanship of those sources?
  • What are the sub-issues of a controversy?

Tools like Monitter allow a journalist to investigate what people are saying about the controversy on social media.

But, Venturini explains, that many journalists are not yet prepared to use these tools mainly because of their complexity. It takes time to learn how to use them. The tools that are likely to be adopted by journalists in the short run are the tools for visually representing an issue. In this category MACOSPOL puts together a repository of tools for visualising regional data grids on a world map. Tools like the Many Eyes Worldmap allow a journalist to upload her data matrix in order to visualise any data set per region. The OECD Factbook eXplorer is an interactive web-tool which enables analysis of regional statistics based on the OECD Factbook, an annual publication of the OECD which provides a global overview of today’s major economic, social and environmental indicators in a range of user-friendly formats.

In order to become journalistic tools, the digital instruments existing today should be able to not only analyse and map data but will have to move closer to journalistic workflows. Ideally, huge datasets will be visualised in compelling ways and – at the same time – help to identify classic journalistic stories. This is the challenge: Combining unwieldy data with storytelling processes.

In order to produce these tools, as Venturini explains: “We need to find a way to amalgamate together visualisation and story […] We need tools to navigate through the datascape and produce at the same time description and narration of those datascapes.”


MACOSPOL platform tutorial

Newsmap is an application that visually reflects the constantly changing landscape of the Google News aggregator;

Many Eyes (IBM) allows visualisation of data values by geographic regions to see spatial patterns in the data;

OECD Factbook eXplorer is a powerful interactive web tool for analysing regional statistics based on the OECD Factbook;

Visual Complexity is a resource focused on networks visualizations for a vast array of topics.

Examples of stories that can be told with these tools:

Controversy mapping projects realised at Sciences Po Paris, MIT, Manchester University, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.