Data journalism: a new level of playing field


Data traces and city life

The simple act of living generates more data than one might expect. In fact, many data traces are created just through working, travelling, buying, communicating, and surfing the web. When data becomes a ubiquitous resource however, power relations between governments, companies and citizens are going to change and not necessarily for the best. Data journalism is one of the tools used in finding, establishing and maintaining a new level of playing field; but a lot of work still needs to be done. According to MIT associate professor Beth Coleman, ‘What we need is an API for cities.’

EJC @ PICNIC: From Database Cities to Urban Stories

beth_coleman.jpgLast week the European Journalism Centre organised a session entitled ‘From Database Cities to Urban Stories’, at the Amsterdam PICNIC festival. The panellists involved, among which Beth Coleman (MIT), Saskia Sassen (Columbia University), Mark Shepard (State University of New York), and Mirko Lorenz (Deutsche Welle), readily agreed that the information revolution profoundly changes the way we use our urban spaces. Cities are equipped with more sensors that continuously feed data into increasingly intertwined systems, making cities not only modern, but also rather smart. Database technology holds the promise of efficient and effective public services.

How do we use data to make city life better?

Wouldn’t it be great if the traffic flows to, from and within a city could be optimised? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the utilities could find waste and inefficiencies in their systems, so that all of our energy bills could go down and cities could become truly cleaner and greener? And what about commercial opportunities? With so much data flowing around, shops and companies already tailor products and messages to every consumer walking into their store or business.

But the data deluge must have more meaning for our urban environments, warned Beth Coleman. An urban space must also make room for public interests, civic virtue and poetic expression. Urban data is currently overwhelmingly used to answer the question ‘what can we buy’? The question should be: how do we utilise all that data so as to make (city) life better?

Access to data shifts power relations

Commercial enterprises are heavy users of data and have become increasingly educated in constructing automated decision support systems that use algorithms in defining and deciding who’s profitable and who’s not, who gets access to services and spaces and who has to stay outside. Governments are catching on fast. The New York City Police Department has a state of the art information control centre where data streams from traffic management, police records, city records and CCTV-images are continually processed. The Baltimore police department uses algorithmic decision support systems to calculate who’s likely to get involved in a murder – as a victim or a perpetrator.

Power relations are therefore shifting fast. Companies and governments have increasingly better data, better networks and better software at their disposal. They now know much more about you. Most citizens, on the other hand, have the media at their disposal. And although most media have made the leap to social networking and internet reporting, their tools for finding stories are still greatly stuck in the twentieth century: phoning, talking to key players, going through records (if the journalist is really persistent), etc.

How to rebalance the power relations?

The picture would be even bleaker if it wasn’t for data journalism. In the second part of the EJC’s session at PICNIC, a couple of inspiring examples of civic activism were shown. Eymund Diegel, a Brooklyn native, talked about the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. He and a couple of neighbours were disturbed by the deteriorating quality of the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn, which displayed a large amount of filthy backwater. They used modern data technology to prod the city’s administration into action. They made aerial photographs using cheap cameras and balloons. They used mapping and infrared technology to show that pockets of pollution existed. They also found out that there was still a fresh water spring that could be used to clean up parts of the canal. The project was not only helpful for the city’s administration, but also for the community, as it found a common cause to come together and work towards a solution.

German journalist Mirko Lorenz sees data journalism as a way to end ‘modern cheating’, a situation where one party can fool another because the first party has better access to data and better understanding due to the correct handling of the data. Data journalism gives journalists and citizens alike a new process to use the same set of data in order to tell their own story. In the right hands, data can be used to expose weaknesses in governance, waste and abuse. What is more, gaining access to data is becoming easier with cheap hardware and (almost) free software.

But it is not yet entirely fool proof, Lorenz warned. Data in and of itself is not enough. The data has to be filtered; noise has to be separated from meaning. The data has to be visualised in order to find a problem or a solution, and there is a great need for stories to be told with datasets. One can present one’s findings, but in order for people to listen, one has to construct a narrative, which often defies the mono-cultural story that is being told – exactly like good journalism does.

A lot of work still needs to be done. Big questions on ownership, openness and usability of data, transparency and trust need to be answered. Also media have to overcome their technological limitations and start looking outside the boundaries of the old way of doing things. This means a call for cultural change is needed, a feat that is always difficult. But if done well, data journalism holds the potential of giving data back to the audience, back to the citizens, and therefore to give back some of the power that was lost during the information revolution.



  • Video of Beth Coleman's talk in the EJC session at PICNIC, 'Using technology to run our cities: promises and perils' (more videos from the EJC session coming up)
  • Slides from Mirko Lorenz's talk 'From Attention to Trust:
 How data driven journalism can help us in the urban future'