The explored and unexplored potential of big data and new technologies for data driven journalism


In a media environment that is driven by emotion and fetishises fear, facts are often buried under tons of populism. However, new accessible technologies can empower journalistic research and allow it to regain its integrity and independence.

In the context of human rights, new technologies are most commonly discussed with respect to privacy risks and data protection. In the field of migration, European databases such as the Schengen Information System and the Visa Information System hold tens of millions of data pieces on migrants; putting their privacy at risk and casting a shadow of criminal suspicion on border-crossers. Edward Snowden’s revelations, disclosing details of global surveillance programs, and the work of organisations such as WikiLeaks and Statewatch leave no doubt as to the risks of new technologies and big datasets, as well as the need for adequate safeguards to protect basic rights.

Yet, used responsibly, new technologies and big data also hold unique potential for journalistic research and advocacy.

What has been done

Data mining has already been successfully used in the field to look at the effects of policies and hold actors to account. These kinds of new technologies have also been utilised in employment and debt-related research, through the use of data-based algorithm decision making.

Technology has proven vital in documenting, reporting and monitoring human rights violations and large scale atrocities, while big data processing allows for the mapping of trends and patterns. Amnesty International is using geospatial technologies like satellite imagery for human rights monitoring and prevention. The Witness Program trains and supports activists and citizens around the world to use video safely, ethically, and effectively to expose human rights abuses and fight for social justice. Freely accessible, interactive maps present the latest information on the Syrian civil war and the war against ISIS.

At the academic level initiatives, such as Human Rights Texts: Converting Human Rights Primary Source Documents into Data, promise new threads of knowledge. Further, the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford has made freely available a number of important datasets, which cover several theoretical and practical aspects of cross-border mobility. Metrocosm, a striking collection of maps and other data visualization projects, is a source of information and inspiration for analytical research on ‘the big issues’.

Furthermore, new tools that encourage this kind of research and make it more widely accessible through visualisation have become freely and easily available. For instance, Kumu helps to handle and visualise data, while YouTube’s face blurring tool provides visual anonymity, allowing for the recording of human rights abuses to be used as evidence by investigative journalists. Furthermore, in the midst of technological advancement, older technologies have become cheaper and easier to use. This provides freelance journalists with more freedom and independence, as they can easily build their own website or produce podcasts via private platforms.

What can be done

Universities have a profound responsibility to build the foundations for the structured and systematic use of such tools and methods, first and foremost, by cultivating breakthrough leadership in supporting interdisciplinary research and  proactively bringing useful disciplines together. The introduction of social, health, and natural science methodologies, alongside the use of new technologies in undergraduate and postgraduate media studies programs, for instance, could be a first step in this direction.

Delving into research also requires new allocation of institutional resources, including technological capacity and direct technical support. The employment of statisticians and computer scientists at media institutions, as well as partnerships with universities and other research organisations, are fundamental if a serious effort is to be made. Due care and attention is also required, particularly with respect to the scientific literacy of the journalists themselves, for instance with respect to data mining or predictive modeling and simulation techniques in order to avoid the risk of reporting incorrect information. Media institutions, networks, and journalistic associations need to take on a central role in the promotion of data driven research by supporting journalists to advance their skills in areas like data mining, analysis, and visualisation (see for instance, the Global Investigative Journalism Network).

Equally important as experimenting with new technologies, is the need to adopt a cautious approach towards them. Data driven research requires considerable resources with respect to time, financial investment, and expertise. Most importantly, ethical and security concerns (storing, using, and sharing big data; hacking; anonymity; and more) need to be taken into account. Journalists need to be critical of biased data representations, as well as the accuracy and possible tactical manipulation of datasets.

Finally, these data driven efforts should be complemented with a parallel investigation into the impact of digital technologies on human rights and the rule of law, including privacy, data protection, and cyber security. The complexities, limitations, and risks of such research need to be addressed through binding and enforceable ethical journalism guidelines and practices. Strengthening the existing regulatory frameworks and adopting a human rights approach to the risks and limitations of using big data and new technologies is essential in order to take advantage of their true potential and avoid their inherent risks.

If journalism is to become a part of the big data revolution and not be swept away by it, it needs to meet the challenges the latter presents. Nevertheless, these challenges can certainly not overshadow the infinite potential of these new knowledge sources.

Note: An important source of information for this piece has been the talk of Prof. Lorna McGregor, Director of the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex at the International Research Conference of the Association of Human Rights Institutes (AHRI, 2016). An earlier version of this article appeared on the Leiden Law Blog. Image: Merrill College of Journalism.