Data driven journalism: Only the start


Download the free PDF report from EJC’s data-driven journalism Amsterdam round-table

This is an open call to anyone interested in data-driven journalism - which should be an important part of the journalism industry’s future. Following up on the EJC roundtable held in Amsterdam on August 24 we have compiled the main messages of the great speakers present on the day into a PDF report, now available to download for free.
The report reframes this new/old discipline. New, because journalists now have tools to work with data. Old, because the process of sense-making is really nothing new. The PDF has been widened to provide an entry point for anyone who wants to know what data-driven journalism (DDJ for short) is all about.

One message should be clear: You do not have to be a maths wizard to do this. Journalists don’t have to become programmers. Instead, as Aron Pilhofer of the New York Times put it at at ‘Scoopcamp’ in Hamburg: “Working with data is a process”. Pilhofer compared the work with data to cooking: You take ingredients, you have to sort out the preparation process and in the end there is just one goal: the meal you prepared must look good and taste good.”

Working with data: A process

If we apply this mindset to data-driven journalism the current goal becomes much clearer and more accessible: learn how to work with data in small steps. Look at material you got and prepare it from raw ingredients into something people react to.
There is meaning in all the data that surrounds us. We could make better decisions. We could better understand big issues and what has to be done about it. There is every chance that in a few years’ time people will wonder how we ever lived without good, filtered and clear data-driven information. Hopefully, one day people will ask: how could you get around without such information? How could politicians, managers and normal people make informed decisions without this? This is what big innovations are made of.

To make this happen, though, we need good chefs in the kitchen. The ever growing amount of data for almost everything needs to be handled with care. It should be served fresh and look good when it comes to the table.
We as journalists need to work on this. The main goal is to create a new layer of data-driven stories. Getting there requires a lot of work, but interesting work from a journalist’s perspective, don’t you think?
Perhaps this sounds overly optimistic, but on the other hand aren’t we fed up with all the doom and gloom about the future of journalism by now? The transfer of advertising money and other funds to digital media is accelerating. Money is not scarce, it is just not invested into decent journalism at this time. But if really compelling data-driven stories and examinations pop up, this might change.
There will be criticism and doubt. Lately, I even read a tweet wondering about where this ‘data journalism craze’ came from. Maybe it is a craze, or maybe it is a movement. The data is there, the tools are evolving. The general public will not embrace the potential of data. People will rightly judge the outcome, not the promise. But, remember what they yelled at the first car owners: ‘Get a horse!’

About the paper

We tried to boil down the essence of the talks from the roundtable. There may be some misunderstandings and even wishful thinking. But at this point it seems that when journalists gather and exchange ideas, they come to much the same conclusions. What is missing so far is a developing market for the results of data-driven journalism.
Only a few news organisations are investing in data desks and teams of journalists and developers. But the few that do have scored big scoops in a relatively short time: the British MP expenses scandal (e.g. how the Guardian handled it) and the Afghanistan War Logs are early examples of what can be done.
But there are many missing elements: more data needs to be open. The tools need to get better and more elegant. There is also a lot of room for improvement in visualisation and storytelling. Journalists need to be trained.
From an EJC perspective we clearly want this to become bigger. If more examples of good data-driven journalism pop up, broadcasters and publishers will soon realise its value – and then earmark money to set up data desks in newsrooms. At that point, there will be a growing need for training. Right now there is no such curriculum for a good training session. It simply hasn’t been written yet.
Our PDF of the round-table in Amsterdam does not attempt to be a curriculum, rather a first reference point. We wanted to capture the combined knowledge of all the great speakers. Many thanks therefore (again) to everyone (in order of appearance): Ian McLean (New York Times), Andrew Lyons (Ultra Knowledge), Burt Herman (Storify, Hacks/Hackers), Cynthia O’Murchu, Eric Ulken (formerly of LA Times, visiting Professor at University of British Columbia), Frank van Ham (IBM), Gavin Sheridan (The Story), Jonathan Gray (The Open Knowledge Foundation), Julian Burgess (The Times), Lorenz Matzat (Datenjournalist.de), Nicolas Kayser-Bril (Owni), Stefan Fichtel (KircherBurkhard), Richard Rogers (University of Amsterdam), Simon Rogers (The Guardian), Stijn Debrouwere (Information Architect) and Tony Hirst (Open University). What an amazing group for just one day.
For all of you downloading this paper and glancing over it, you will find an introduction, a short wrap-up of every talk and loads of links to tools and relevant articles. Please tell us what you think. Send us tips about what should appear in the next installment.

Follow more on Twitter with the hashtags #ddj and #datajournalism. And stay connected by joining the ‘data-driven journalism’ group on EJC’s Online Journalism Community.


Teaser image credits: Anna Lena