Use flowcharts to avoid getting stuck in data journalism projects


All journalists are quite comfortable coping with the problems, big and small, of a written story. You start with an initial idea, then do your research, gather information, put it into a form fit for publication. 

The same process in a data story can pose quite a number of obstacles. Often, people get stuck. So, what do you do when the data is hard to come by? How do you avoid to get stuck with an overly complex set of data? What is the best visualization to choose later?

Planning ahead can help to avoid that. Similar to writing a story or creating a video work on a data story is facilitated when you have a clear step-by-step plan at hand. 

This is why flowcharts can help a lot finding your own path. Recently Journalism.co.uk published story linking to a blog post to project flowcharts which can be a big help - for your own work and in order to communicate what you intend to do to others in your newsroom (including superiors).

One example of such a flowchart comes from science journalist James Gaines. He writes: „I seem to constantly get stuck. Data journalism is really useful and powerful, but it does require a bit of technical know-how to perform. More than any other form of journalism there definitely seems to be a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. So in order to help myself when I’ve gotten stuck (and to help me remember what program to use when) I’ve made myself a flowchart.“

See the flow chart he created for his own projects here.

(The best advice in this plan is to talk to an expert early in the project in order to avoid drawing the wrong conclusions as to the quality of the data. Pick up the phone early in your project and reach out!).

Later, as a response, Paul Bradshaw picked up on the topic and created his version of a flowchart, particularly for the process to gather data.

The key point here is that planning makes it much easier to go through the steps of your particular project: Almost all data projects go through phases - from an idea or dataset to gathering the numbers, to cleaning, to visualizing and then on to publishing. No two projects are exactly the same - so creating your very own flowchart might be extremely helpful to chart your own course.

Equipped with such a plan, the range of tools you might use is easier to put to work. There will be turning points where you just know that at a point the best option will be use Excel, Open RefineR, Kimono or Import.io for the data gathering and cleaning. But having a visualized plan will help a lot to make decisions at turning points and stages of your particular project.