“I haven’t got time” is not acceptable when it comes to basic data techniques

clock workings

Picking apart the time you spend on things can identify false economies. Image by Vittorio Pandolfi

Yesterday I spoke at the BBC Data Day: an event bringing together people at the BBC interested in data-related issues, techniques and tools. During the question and answer session following my talk one person mentioned a common reason why he wasn’t using data journalism techniques:

“I haven’t got the time.”

For some reason this time the phrase bristled. And later I realised why.

A journalist wouldn’t get away with saying they “hadn’t got the time” to get a response quote.

A journalist wouldn’t get away with saying they “hadn’t got the time” to get the background to a story.

A journalist wouldn’t get away with saying they “hadn’t got the time” to check a key fact.

So why is it acceptable to say that about basic data journalism techniques like pivot tables?

A pivot table is so quick to do that I was able to record a Vine of the process:

That’s six seconds. It’s not going to disrupt your day.

And those six seconds are important because data has become an integral element in our information sources.

Yes, a couple decades ago checking the facts behind what a source said, or behind a policy claim, was particularly time-consuming.

But that’s changed: data is increasingly falling into journalists’ inboxes; finding it is a simple search query away; our sources have increasing access to it themselves; and the tools to analyse it are free.

Saying “I haven’t got time” to deal with that type of information is cutting off a large chunk of potential leads, context and verification. It is actually making extra work for yourself. It is actually adding time.

And the volume of that information is only likely to increase, as Nigel Shadbolt pointed out on the day when he spoke about sensors and the Internet of Things.

With a general election less than a year away, and claims being made by all sides about the NHS, about immigration, about welfare, journalists cannot afford to “not have the time” to check those claims, or to put them into context.

Of course training in those techniques does take time, and that’s something that most organisations have been putting on for a few years now.

But it works both ways: too often journalists don’t sign up for that training because they don’t see the value or importance in it, or they think they’re “not good with technology”.

Data journalism can, and should, be used to save time. And not spending time learning those techniques is a false economy. Why spend an hour doing something when it could take six seconds?

Now I have some sympathy for those who feel that they don’t have the time to use data journalism techniques. But increasingly when someone says “I don’t have the time” what they really mean is “But we’ve always done it that way”.


4 thoughts on ““I haven’t got time” is not acceptable when it comes to basic data techniques

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