The double challenge of explaining Europe through data


How and why we set up the European Data Journalism Network, a platform for producing, translating and sharing data driven news on European affairs, and making it accessible for any newsroom.

In a multinational and multicultural environment like the European Union, where opinion is a commodity widely shared among journalists and the public, facts and figures are among the few things that everybody can agree on — or at least that everyone can comprehend before disagreeing on their interpretation.

Much more than text and stories, which may sound radically different to individual audiences, charts, maps and other infographics are immediately understandable to the general public — and, as pioneering data journalist Nicolas Kayser-Bril (a member of the European Data Journalism Network) correctly pointed out, they don’t require costly translation and localisation: the very issues that are weakening the economic model of the few multi-language pan-European news organisations currently operating.

Besides crossing language barriers to explain complex phenomena — no rare necessity in European affairs — data driven news is also graphically attractive. It can provide creative possibilities that pure-text stories lack, stimulate comparisons between countries by showing the importance or the impact of policy making on the local and European level, and compensate for the perceived intricacy in European news. This in turn can help to persuade newsrooms that, after all, such news might deserve some attention.

This is where the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet) comes in. Co-funded by a three-year EU grant, it was set up in early 2017 by two non-profit media organisations with a pan-European outlook, multi-language approach and general public-orientation: VoxEurop and Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT). Along with a dozen European partners, such as French magazine Alternatives économiques, data journalism agencies Journalism++, Journalism Robotics and Local Focus immediately joined as core partners. Not long afterwards came Brussels-based and top-EU news website EUobserver, Italian news magazine Internazionale, Spanish newspaper El Confidencial, BiQdata (Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza’s data unit) and Slovenian investigative journalism outlet Pod črto. Spiegel Online’s data unit’s enthusiastic participation helped us bring in other major media organisations. Público, one of Portugal’s leading dailies, as well as Mobile Reporter, a platform for collaborative data journalism run by Italian journalist Stefano Valentino, have also recently joined. The Network’s aim in the medium term is to have at least one partner in each EU country, then to further expand within individual countries.

How the network operates

The Network mostly relies on Slack for its day-to-day activity, and on a weekly internal newsletter where new and upcoming stories are listed, so that every member can stay up to date, pick the stories they want to use, or get in touch with those working on a new story to offer their contribution. Every week the “core team” members – Alternatives économiques, OBC Transeuropa and VoxEurop – have a remote meeting to discuss organisational and editorial issues. All members are invited to attend the monthly meeting, where OBC Transeuropa and VoxEurop share updates on the latest news, achievements and partnership agreements, followed by editorial brainstorming on possible collaborative stories.

While progressively working up to full gear, the Network’s platform currently produces and publishes several types of content, from classical data driven medium-format reports to short stories, and provides a series of curation tools. All of them are available for free, albeit under different licences according to the author. It is addressed to journalists as well as the general public.

The tools developed by EDJ Network

Among the tools developed, some are more geared towards journalists, while others should also be of interest to a wider public, like the Useful data section, a growing reviewed collection of useful sources, datasets and data repositories on EU affairs compiled by Alternatives économiques and OBCT.

Designed more for journalists, the Stats Monitor provides automatically-generated newsleads based on data from Eurostat, the EU statistical agency, signaling interesting trends, changes and outliers. Editors are able to visualize their stories and embed the charts generated by the algorithm directly on their own website. The goal is to make it easy to do journalism with data. Stats Monitor is powered by the news services Newsworthy, developed by Journalism++ in Stockholm, and LocalFocus in Amsterdam. A beta version of the service has been available since November 2017 and new datasets will be added gradually over the course of 2018.

Another tool – created by OBCT – is the Quote Finder, which shows the words that are leading the trends in European affairs. The program is powered by text-mining and will eventually include multiple interactive visualisations, offering a variety of perspectives on EU affairs. The current beta version of the tool allows you to interactively explore all tweets published by members of the European Parliament over the last three months, generate relevant word clouds, and discover the most frequently used hashtags in all languages used by MEPs. The tool is under development, with new features and sources beyond Twitter to be added in the coming months. The code of this open source tool is available on GitHub, and the tool's author, @giocomai, is happy to receive feedback and suggestions. While EDJNet will keep its online version focused on European affairs, it will be easy to adapt the tool and create more versions of the Quote Finder focused on completely different subjects (e.g. instead of retrieving posts by MEPs, a Quote Finder could be created which focuses on national members of parliament, or all the football players and sports journalists involved in the next World Cup).

Finally, OBCT recently set up an online help desk to assist journalists who are working on stories concerning European affairs, and are having trouble gathering data or deciding on how best to visualize it, or simply want to explore the other tools developed by EDJNet. We are actively promoting the service through our channels and we hope that this can help many journalists overcome the obstacles that technical issues can present in the treatment of data.

But this hasn’t been without some challenges. For example, the need to adapt stories that were conceived and written for a specific domestic audience that differs from the partners’ own audience, the planning of releases and publications, or the complexity of translating infographics created with proprietary applications. Nothing that cannot be overcome with time and patience – and a lot of commitment. Whatever hassles this may bring, the sheer fact of sharing experience, hints, suggestions and collaborating with colleagues from other newsrooms makes it all worthwhile.

Where are we heading?

In the long run, while we work on a sustainable economic model, the Network members and their journalists will acquire new skills, reach a wider audience thanks to translation and reuse, and benefit from being part of a pan-European network, paving the way for more cross-border collaboration. If we’re smart enough to attract them, users across Europe and hopefully beyond will have access to more accessible, high quality news on topics regarded as complex or distant — and perhaps they will form a different, better view of this old continent of ours. There’s a big challenge ahead; and facing it will be worth every effort.

Visit EDJNet here.