Digging deeper: An in-depth look at data journalism in the Netherlands


NU.nl is one of the first online news sites in the Netherlands. It holds almost half of the online news market share. This has enabled NU.nl to be more innovative as well as to be one of the first adopters of data journalism in the Netherlands.

jelle_kamsma_pic.jpgThe EJC interviewed Jelle Kamsma, data journalist at NU.nl, about the data journalism operation at NU.nl and the state of data journalism in the Netherlands. Kamsma was hired by NU.nl six months ago to experiment with data journalism and find out what the best practices are. At that time the publication was looking to hire someone with a strong background in journalism, who also had knowledge of coding and design. As journalists possessing all these skills in the Netherlands are few and far between, what NU.nl eventually ended up with was a young graduate in new media who was willing to learn coding and design.


European Journalism Centre (EJC): Who is practising data journalism in the Netherlands?

Jelle Kamsma: Data journalism in the Netherlands is growing quite rapidly. When I first started at NU.nl I and another journalist from the NRC were the only ones calling ourselves data journalists in the Netherlands. The NRC publishes a data story every couple of months in its nrcnext.nl blog. The content usually focuses on either investigations or putting stories into context with graphs.

VPRO, the Dutch public broadcaster, also has a data journalist. Their programme, Nederland van Boven, has a lot of potential to show people the value of data journalism. The biggest press agency in the Netherlands, ANP, announced at the beginning of November that they are also starting up with data journalism.

The practice of data journalism has also been increasing in the Netherlands by means of ‘hack days’. The hacking event Regiohack which recently took place in Enschede, successfully introduced regional journalists to data journalism. These sorts of events are great because they provide opportunities for news publications to work together. Now is the perfect time to be practising data journalism because the atmosphere is full of enthusiasm, sharing and collaboration.


EJC: What does NU.nl do in terms of data journalism?

Kamsma: About half the work that I do now is at the level of putting news into context. Many of the articles we publish come from news agencies and what we want is to add more value to these articles. I do this by enriching articles that we publish with data. I look for the data, and visualise it in order to put the story into context and make the relevant information in the data more accessible. We also provide the original datasets along with our articles so our readers can explore the numbers themselves. I notice that people use the data in their discussions to look at issues that concern their own region or city. If I as journalist make a mistake it is seen right away, which in turn allows me to improve my work.

The news goes really fast on our website so I have one hour, two hours maximum, to do this kind of work. I need to publish the visualisation and the data before the article disappears from the first page and I miss the opportunity.

The other important part of my work is finding new stories in data. I take interesting datasets and analyse them to find facts that are worth reporting. This is the more challenging part of my job. I try to publish at least one or two new stories per week.

We’re planning to hire a new front-end developer soon with whom I am hoping to collaborate on creating news applications.


EJC: What is the project that you are most proud of?

Kamsma: The project that had the most impact was the mapping of nuclear power risk in the Netherlands. I mapped the areas in direct proximity of a nuclear power plant to see how many cities and people lived there and checked whether those cities had taken adequate precautions. The circles on the map show the different types of measures that need to be taken in case of accident at the power plant. 


Screenshot of map of nuclear power risk in the Netherlands


Anyone could check if, for example, they lived in an area that would need to be evacuated in case of accident. This sparked a lot of discussion on social media like Twitter.


EJC: How do you get your data?

Kamsma: Some organisations like CBS, the World Bank or OECD put data online in accessible formats. However, most interesting data isn’t publicly available online. A big part of my job is calling governments, institutions or companies to acquire this data. As a lot of organizations are still pretty wary that they might lose control over their data, important in this process is to built trust. You have to convince that you will use the data responsibly.

Another way to get my data is through FOI requests. An FOI request can take up to two months to honour in the Netherlands, so the process is not quick. Open data in the Netherlands is useful for building services and applications but less for finding news stories. Governments have yet to put the more interesting data online.


EJC: What tools do you use in your work?

Kamsma: The most important tool by far is Excel. I advise anyone who wants to get into data journalism to learn to work with Excel: sorting, basic functions, Pivot Tables. Also Google Refine is tremendously helpful for cleaning data and combining datasets.

To enrich news and turn data into simple graphs or diagrams I use tools like Fusion Charts. If I want to map geographical data I use Google Fusion Tables.

I also use mapping and visualisation of data as part of my research. With Fusion Tables I mapped organ donor registrations in the Netherlands. The map showed big regional differences in organ donation throughout the country. This led me to ask questions and to try to make correlations to find the reason for these differences. By further mapping of parliamentary voting patterns in the country and interviews I discovered that there is a correlation between the percentage of people who vote for Christian parties and the percentage of organ donors.


EJC: What are examples of data journalism in action that you admire?

Kamsma: The Guardian Data Blog does a great job with a small team and free tools. I appreciate the fact that they make their approach and the data they use available to the public to explore. What the New York Times does with their Interactive Technologies department is also great but at NU.nl we do not have the resources for such projects.


EJC: What drives data journalists and new publishers in the Netherlands to pick up data journalism?

Kamsma: There is an interest coming from a lot of publications who see the availability of data online as an opportunity to innovate the way in which they produce news. Even if at times it is not clear what data journalism can bring for them, there is a willingness to try it.


EJC: What are the barriers to data journalism in the Netherlands?

Kamsma: The most interesting data is pretty hard to obtain. Data on sensitive topics such as things that put public health at risk or weapon licenses is hard to find even if legally it is public data.

Another barrier is the lack of models, structures and workflows. When I started working in this field there were no local models available. I needed a mentor but there was not one in the Netherlands, so I had to figure it out for myself. Now you see more and more expertise being shared, which is helpful.


EJC: What are your hopes for the future?

Kamsma: I hope that in the future data driven journalism will enter the mind-sets of editorial staffs more and that they will see that it has a lot of potential when it comes to finding stories.


Do you have any experience with data journalism in the Netherlands? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.