Newsrooms: Build your organization’s data skills with the Data Culture Project


Our digital era offers many exciting opportunities for journalists to work with data — including open data sets, cheap tools for data analytics, and free platforms for data storytelling and visualization. More and more newsrooms want to embrace data because it has the potential to help them find new story ideas, keep leaders and institutions accountable, and build trusting relationships with audiences. But embracing data is hard!

Even with the wealth of technological possibilities, and perhaps because of it, many journalists and news organizations remain intimidated by data. Organizations silo journalists that work with data into editorial and those that work with audience data into marketing, with little interaction or collaboration. Newsrooms have access to tons of data sets and collect tons of data, but some are puzzled about how to glean ideas from it or use it to tell stories.

If you've struggled with building a data culture in your newsroom, the Data Culture Project is here to help! This collaborative effort between MIT's Media Lab and Emerson College's Engagement Lab aims to spark critical learning around data literacy at news outlets and other civil society organizations. We offer an online curriculum of fun and simple activities that push beginners to work with and think about data, as well as pushing experts within the organization to improve communicating why data matters to everyone. Even more importantly, the Data Culture Project makes this fun with a hands-on approach that helps you take a step back from the spreadsheets and charts to work on the muscles that help you find and tell strong data driven stories.

We've built the Data Culture Project with a variety of on-the-ground partners at newspapers and nonprofits. Over the past six months, we've been collaborating with more than 30 organizations — including newspapers, radio stations, foundations, global nonprofits, and governmental agencies — in our pilot program. Each organization has an internal data champion who has gathered their staff from across the organization for one-hour lunch workshops, once a month, that introduce key skills around data and host fun activities to practice them. The curriculum comes with simple tools to upload and manipulate data, videos to introduce key concepts and inspire reflection, and guides for facilitators to run the activity.

Right now the curriculum has three central activities. The "Sketch a Story" activity asks participants to search for patterns in music lyrics and seeks to transform insights into creative drawings. The "Asking Good Questions" activity trains participants to think critically about what data they have, what data they're missing, and where to find complementary data. The "Convince Me" activity cultivates the ability to use data to make arguments and to leverage data as evidence. The Data Culture Project is a living collaboration — as it grows we will be adding more activities linked from the homepage. We're already testing new ones with our network of pilot partners now.

Image: Participants complete the Sketch a Story activity, which lets them practice basic quantitative text analysis tools and create drawings out of their findings.

Our unique approach to data and data literacy fills a gap we see in technologies and trainings. We try to avoid the technical jargon around data that requires advanced degrees and intimidates the rest of us. We think data literacy is important for all staff — not just IT — and we try to break down the silos that keep data skills in just one part of the organization. We encourage skepticism and curiosity about data, not just accepting the figures in front of us as fact. And of course, we think data should be made fun and engaging! All this combines to create a novel approach to building a cross-organizational data culture.

The feedback from our pilot partners has been inspiring, especially the responses from news organizations who say the workshops have led them to think about their journalism more critically. One radio station facilitator said the "Convince Me" activity led their organization to think deeply about their audience and the best strategies to communicate with them. Another news organization mentioned that the activities led the most data-skeptic staff members on the team to become confident and excited about working with data. And another said the workshops allowed the most data-skilled staff members to learn alongside those with less experience. These concrete outcomes point to the potential impacts for our approach, and how it can complement existing programs that focus on specific technologies.

The Data Culture Project launched publicly on 5 March 2018, and now all of our videos, activities and facilitation guides are freely accessible at https://datacultureproject.org. We're holding a launch webinar on 12 April 2018 to introduce the tools and provide some suggestions about running the workshops. Every few months we’ll be adding more activities to the catalog, to better help organizations build and assess their data culture.

Explore the Data Culture Project here.

Image: Antonio Roberts.