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Data Journalism

Datajournalism: faith in numbers

Eschewing the bias of the traditional press, a new type of journalism has emerged providing fuel for critical analysis rather than predetermined conclusions. If datajournalism is a religion, then I am one of its apostles.

by Pirhoo On September 7, 2011

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Eschewing the bias of the traditional press, a new type of journalism has emerged providing fuel for critical analysis rather than predetermined conclusions. If datajournalism is a religion, then I am one of its apostles.

The first part of this article is for developers - but don’t leave, I’ll be gentle. You may have already guessed it, but it is not enough to know how to code for datajournalism. In addition to the technical aspects, which are certainly unique and essential – namely, data visualization and data mining – a developer keen to become a reporter must first obtain human qualities for which his profession has not prepared him.

1. Every subject is different, be curious!

As we all know, programming intrinsically requires curiousity: you have to constantly recycle techniques and knowledge. In their own way, journalists have this same constraint. There are also monetary constraints when we work on these kind of projects. We have to make the data clearer and more concise. We have to back up a certain angle because data isn’t always enough. Finally, we have to tell a story that puts everything together.

To achieve this, you can’t take detours. You have to play the game with your heart and soul. If you speak like a journalist then the reader will understand. The best way to do this is to understand every aspect of your subject and to provide answers to questions that you asked while studying it. Arrange things so that the reader understands. Be harmonious. It’s not because a graphic artist makes a beautiful design and that you advertise it that the problem will become clearer to anyone. The reader can never know enough. The reader only asks more questions.

2. Don’t just do, ask

Yes, it’s true, they do love to hear themselves talk. But journalists are also a very attentive species. They know how to ask the right questions and they can construct something new and comprehensive with the responses. As a data specialist, you’ve got stories to tell. Designers and journalists will never know that you’re better trained than they are to respond to the readers’ needs.

When reporters tell a story, designers illustrate it and animate it. You have all the qualities necessary to ensure that your article tells the story in the best possible way. Some think about narratives, but you make them. The point of all of this is to make an inherently complex subject or data set easy to understand. You have all the tools that you need to make yourself heard (remember UML, Merise, etc., can be rather useful).

3. Get ready to learn!

When you practice datajournalism, each project is so dynamic that you use an exponential number of different technologies. And there are an infinite number of ways to make data speak. If you diversify your skills, your articles will be that much more successful and rich. Don’t just use Highcharts to make a pretty graph. If you limit yourself to using only this tool, that would be as compelling as a painter who only uses black and white.

4. Enough with the clichés

I have often been confronted with a cliché: Journalists and developers in separate rooms, the latter being seen as beings from another world. How on earth could their association function successfully? The developer is not a service provider. For this to work, you must nurture the requisite conditions of horizontal collaboration. Breaking down the walls! Mix! This is why it is necessary that all contributors to a data project sign their name. It is not just for Mom to see your name in the credits. It is above all to restore some level of equality, even if illusory (the developers are much better of course).

From now on, developing in a corner without ever communicating other than by email is over! Never leaving home except to eat pizza at a LAN party is finished! You’ll probably need to reproduce with journalists, too. Mimic their behavior and they will adopt yours. This hybrid is the best of both worlds. We’re making order out of chaos.

5. Don’t stress, everything’s going to be alright

Reactionary journalists are too sure of themselves to bother questioning their profession. They content themselves with copying and pasting a view source. Fortunately, the question has to be asked: there is no longer any doubt. Press professions have an uncertain future on paper. They need to diversify, to expand onto news forms of media and to exploit all potential. Today still, when I suggest learning programming to a journalist, I hear the refrain: “it’s not my job.” I understand that the idea is surprising. But rather than listing what will change, why not look at what ultimately does not change? You know better than I do that in addition to informing the public, you must also tell a story. That’s what you do best. That’s what we expect from journalists. When it comes to datajournalism and all web-related mutations, we’re not asking you to do more, just to do things a little differently.

The supporting technologies do change, yes. Techniques become more diverse, sure. But, we’re not asking you to run Microsoft. You’re going to learn all of these things (or maybe you already have). And this is not going to make your articles better, or more transparent and poetic. They’re only going to make your article interactive instead of inert, static things. It’s just a new way to tell a story.

6. You’ll always be weaker than me.

There is no ambiguity between us: the developer here, is me. You will have to learn more and more technologies that I’ve created, but that does not mean that the roles are reversed. The goal is for you to be self-sufficient. That you start practicing data-mining and project management. Nobody wants to make you into a supersonic creature capable of everything. If I had to estimate the minimum amount of knowledge that we need to know, I would be tempted to say ”just enough so that journalists, developers and designers can understand one another.” The greatest innovation is this team with three heads.

The first part of this guide was for developers. If you read it, you’ll find that I speak almost exclusively about creating the conditions conducive to good teamwork. I insist heavily on this because it is ultimately what I need to teach you. There are, of course, some other essential tools. The most formidable of all is not software, but human. Heal your relationships with developers. You have a passion for writing, they have a passion for code. Most of the reasons that you love writing can be applied to programming, too.

When I was studying computer science, math was paramount. Even today, some of my colleagues do not know how to create an algorithm without using an equation. Computer calculations are based on basic functions (“computer” literally means “calculator”) but I see programming more as a form of literature. We have figures of speech. Each programmer has a mark of their own. We have a syntax to respect and when we state a problem or its solution with an algorithm, we are faced with problems similar to those of the narrative. Our professions are not quite so different.

7. Give yourself the means to evolve

Jean-Marc Manach, a colleague and friend, has always intrigued me. It seems important to me to quote him in this article because I had the opportunity to collaborate with him many times and it is a strong symbol of the advantages of datajournalism. To say that Jean-Marc is a journalist is to say that Rocco Siffredi is an actor: it is only a fraction of the truth … He is a free electron, a free element that will push a discipline to its edge, pushing it to evolve. When a government site suddenly hides photos that were once public, Jean-Marc will delve into the HTML of the site to find traces, test combinations in the URL and use an Excel spreadsheet for the purpose of web scrapping investigations. There is no complicated technique, no need to have a degree in computer engineering. It is simply a demonstration of hacking. Jean-Marc is a hybrid, a journalist-hacker, he tinkers, using trial and error and its results are sometimes surprising in the best ways.

This example tells us something very important: datajournalism is a job for curious people. That’s its essence. You must be curious. You have to search every corner of the Internet, and that is where you will learn the most because that is how you’re going to encounter problems. Solving these problems is an art. And it takes the analysis of the data and other complexities to solve them. We can say that it is a handyman’s profession. That is probably one of the most important features.

~

Now you just have to get to work. Find developers, find designers, find subjects, even complex ones. If you can create an application that tells a story and supports the angle of your article, then you can boast about being a datajournalist.

Resources

  • Want to directly learn how to write code? I recommend the excellent Codeacademy is a good source of tutorials. No previous knowledge is needed (HTML and PHP are good choices for beginners ;) .
  • Where can one find a databases? Nothing could be easier! The web is full of them. Check outDataPublicaBuzzdata, and certain tags on Delicious. They’re real gold mines of info. Don’t forget that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar: ask the government nicely for public data that may just not have been published yet.


Article first published on l’Oeil du Pirate in two parts: (1) and (2)

Photo Credits: Flickr CC Paternité blprnt_van

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