10/4/2013

Why Italy Is the Land of Opportunity for Data Journalism

 

Data journalism is catalysing growing attention in Italy but it is still in its infancy. On the one hand, some significant pieces of work are completed by small independent enterprises, civil society activists collecting and elaborating public expenditure, and by a handful of journalists. On the other hand, data skills are still not part of the formal curricula in journalism schools nor are they requested amongst recruiting criteria. Moreover, Italy lacks a Freedom of Information act similar to those in effect in Sweden or in the US and journalists often have to face a culture of secrecy and scarce collaboration when they approach public institutions to seek data.

However, Italy is showing some very promising signs for the expansion of data journalism. Data journalism schools, short and long courses, are sprouting throughout the country, a sign of the strong interest that many professionals and journalism students are showing towards this new practice. At the forefront of this trend is certainly the International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA), in Trieste, which last year introduced the first full course in data journalism within its Master in Science Journalism. Another promising endeavour is DataJournalismItaly, the first Italian online community, started last fall and now counting more than 260 members. The Ahref Foundation is supporting since 2010 iData, a project for developing data journalism skills and tools for the Italian community. Together with Istat, the Italian Institute of Statistics, Ahref has also launched a series of two-day data-journalism schools tailored for media professionals. A great step in putting data journalism on the map for the Italian media has been the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, which gave the topic ample space since the 2012 edition in collaboration with the European Journalism Centre and the Open Knowledge Foundation. This has been an important step in attracting much needed attention and talent.

Who Is Doing Data Journalism in Italy?

No outlet has formally launched a data journalism unit inside its newsroom. A few major outlets have launched their own data blog, such as La Stampa and Il Sole24Ore, mostly displaying a curatorial approach. Work on wider data stories is mostly outsourced.

One example of small data-based enterprises is OpenPolis, which works on collection, cleaning and aggregation of public spending, from the Parliament to the city level. A growing number of independent professionals are working on data-driven projects. One good example is Il Giro della Nera, the most complete crime map of Milan to date. Other interesting experiments are the collective blog DataJ-Crew, as well as the blog Data Ninja. One of the most interesting civic uses of data journalism is Appello per L'Aquila, a project that maps the reconstruction of the city after the 2009 earthquake. Datajournalism.it, the first online outlet specifically aimed at producing data driven stories, still in beta, is currently being launched.

At Wired Italy, in the last year, we have been able to run two very relevant data stories: #scuolesicure, "safe schools", on seismic safety assessment of school buildings, and #doveticuri, an investigation which has lead to the first interactive map of death risks of 1200 Italian hospitals.

Types of Projects Developed

Mostly geomapping and expenditure projects are being developed. Also, we have seen some interesting things in mapping criminal activities and in ranking hospital performances with regard to certain treatments. And, as already mentioned, some data projects on education levels, student population and dropouts. However, the most deeply searched and data-driven piece of work to date is likely Wired's #scuolesicure enquiry, which was inspired by the earthquake in Emilia-Romagna in spring 2012 and led us to build an entire database of data regarding school safety assessments which had never been published before by any public institution. The major interactive graphic tool, in this case, is an interactive map. But we like to highlight that it has also been the first time that a magazine has decided to publish the entire database in an open license, to be revised and completed by our readers and interested parties.

Popular Tools 

The main tools used are off the shelf and free web tools such as ManyEyes, Google Maps, Google Data Explorer, Fusion, Refine. There is still little development of software inside media outlets as it is common at The New York Times and ProPublica. On the mapping and georeferencing side, there is quite a good community pushing the usage of OpenStreetMap, but we should admit that most journalists tend to use Google-based tools since they appear to be less difficult to deal with.

There are few Italian resources as most journalists look directly at the international sources, but a handful is starting to develop at Ahref’s Datablog and the organisation Lsdi, which published a handbook for open data and data journalism. The DataJournalismItaly community is now a reference point as well.

Hopes for the Future

My hope for Italy is the development of a strong and vibrant community of data journalists and a wider collaboration with developers. At the same time, we can't forget we need to improve the context in which we operate on two major fronts.

One is access to information: there is a growing demand and discussion on an Italian FOI (Freedom of Information) law. Monti's government recently passed a new and much welcomed transparency law, which unfortunately is not sufficient to properly reform Italy's very restrictive access law (241/90).

The second issue to address is the sustainability of data driven work which often requires time and resources incompatible with the meager fees paid by most outlets. Given the current economic and editorial crisis this shall hopefully be addressed through the expansion of grant programmes as the ones from the EU journalism fund and the Ahref Foundation.

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