From making data physical to giving journalists confidence (and a few other things too): Data Journalism UK 2019

marie segger at data journalsm uk 19

Last week saw the third Data Journalism UK conference, an opportunity for the country’s data journalists to gather, take stock of the state of the industry and look at what’s ahead.

The BBC Shared Data Unit’s Pete Sherlock kicked off the event, looking back at the first 18 months of the unit’s existence. In that period the unit has trained 15 secondees and helped generate over 600 stories across more than 250 titles in the regional press.

Sherlock highlighted two stories in particular to demonstrate how the data unit had helped equip regional reporters in holding power to account: the Eastern Daily Press’s Dominic Gilbert‘s story on legal aid deserts, and JPI Media’s Aimee Stanton‘s report on electric car charging points.

Both stories resulted in strong pushback – from the Ministry of Justice and the electric car industry respectively – but their new data journalism skills gave them the confidence to persist with the story.

Gilbert’s initial attempt to map legal aid provision to local authorities, for example, was branded ‘Inaccurate and misleading’ by the MoJ, because they used different geographical areas to allocate services. “It would be enough to put most journalists off,” said Sherlock.

“But Dom had the confidence to persist. He was going to challenge the MoJ’s narrative. And he was going to do it with data.

“So he assigned each provider to its relevant procurement area. And he worked out the population for each procurement area. And he did this six times for six different types of law.

“And he found, for example, that in five procurement areas, there was no legal aid provider for housing. That was 1.5million people living in a legal aid desert. People in Doncaster, Dorset, Hartlepool, Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight and Wigan.”

When he went back to the MoJ with the new analysis and asked if they were going to change their statement, they replied that they were no longer calling the data inaccurate.

Making data physical

Perhaps the freshest perspective at the conference was Alice Corona, whose Batjo project is exploring the use of physical installations to bring data to life. Examples in the project’s cookbook include a ‘data walk’ (charts given physical form), a 3D data map, and ‘You draw it’-style light bars that participants light up based on their beliefs about what certain values might be.

This ‘digital fabrication‘, argued Corona, has the potential to be more inclusive than its screen-bound equivalent.

“Younger people are more likely to engage [with the data],” she says, while those with sensory disabilities could use non-visual senses to explore the data.

She also suggested that practitioners willing to learn data journalism skills when producing physical exhibits might not be so keen when the output would otherwise be a chart or infographic.

(At this point most of the people in the room were already starting to wonder if their newsroom had a 3D printer – or might be willing to get one – although Corona suggested it might be more efficient to partner with a local organisation which already has the technology.)

Data’s mainstream place in the newsroom

The first panel of the day brought together data journalists from the country’s three broadsheets and public broadcaster, with the spirits of data journalism past, present and future all on display.

As the head of the country’s best-known data team, The Guardian’s Caelainn Barr provided an insight into data journalism’s journey from fringe experiment to integral part of the news operation.

“My role as editor is to give my team time,” noted Caelainn. “[Other reporters] know what stories we can do – but don’t have the awareness of the stories we could do if we had more time.”

By way of example, Barr spoke about the data team’s involvement in the Guardian’s 2017 Beyond the blade project exploring the numbers of young people killed by knives.

The team were involved in discussions about the project from the start, but wanted to establish the factual basis for the project before committing themselves — was knife crime really the big issue that journalists were assuming it to be?

The struggle to find data on knife deaths itself became part of the story: “If the authorities aren’t collecting data on this issue,” said Barr, “how can they form effective policy?”

The story of the team’s search for data details the range of techniques used: speaking to experts eventually led to the unreleased Homicide Index, then a series of FOI requests to both the Home Office and individual police forces, and complaints and appeals when those were met with resistance.

The results not only informed the resulting story (it turned out that 2017 was one of the worst years on record for deaths from stabbings), but also journalists’ perceptions of the issue:

“They also upend the narrative that knife deaths are a phenomenon among only black teenagers. In the decade to 2015, the vast majority of those who died were not black teenagers. Almost two-thirds of the victims were white or Asian. While those figures are disproportionate to the population, they still challenge perceptions about young knife deaths.”

And there was a positive side to the data work, too: a dramatic drop in stabbings in Scotland provided a solutions journalism angle.

The growing role of code

Christine Jeavans has been closely involved in the evolution of the BBC’s own central data journalism provision, a history more closely entwined with features, interactivity and visuals than in the broadsheets, but with the number of dedicated data journalists increasing significantly in the past 12 months.

Jeavans highlighted the growing role of code in the team – demonstrated by the R graphics cookbook compiled to help standardise the team’s visualisation production, and the importance of personalisation to help readers “find themselves in the story”.

The Telegraph’s Ashley Kirk similarly emphasised the importance of interactivity and personalisation to their data journalism output – in their case, more closely tied to a commercial strategy focused on subscriptions. Searchable widgets help drive registration on the website while interactivity provides a USP for the organisation.

Metrics that show readers spend longer on stories with interactivity help too.

At The Times and Sunday Times meanwhile it was the lack of visuals or interactivity that distinguished the work of Leila Haddou‘s team, where the focus is very much on the stories.

Investigations into the profits made by companies running failing care homes, charities forced to agree to clauses preventing them from criticising politicians in contracts with government departments, and peers with financial links to Moscow were just some of the highlights with real impact.

In the peers story a fellow journalist simply wasn’t aware that data journalism could play a role at all – until Haddou used scraping techniques to supply the reporter with a list of the people she needed to focus on.

“We are trying to change the perception [in the organisation] of what data journalism can be,” said Haddou. “We’re looking for wrongs to be righted.”

Her team’s work has resulted in the government dropping ‘no adverse criticism’ clauses. “That is the ultimate measure for me: what’s changed as a result.”

The future of data journalism: jobs and money

In the afternoon the attention turned to data journalism’s future, as the event’s second panel looked at attempts to better open up data to scrutiny, the changing nature of data journalism jobs and content, and new sources of funding.

Marie Segger opened with a reflection on the skills needed to get into the data journalism. The importance of persistence, flexibility, and research were all emphasised in a talk that condensed into six points:

  1. Figure out what you’re trying to do and how
  2. Research opportunities
  3. Find alternatives to reach the dream job (and don’t rush)
  4. Build skills (free online courses)
  5. Use existing networks
  6. Celebrate the journey

Reach’s David Ottewell picked up the theme of skills by highlighting the growing number of graduates now entering the news industry with some ability to work with spreadsheets. “A journalist without data skills is handicapping themselves,” he argued, while suggesting that knowing a programming language like R “will become more important [in standing out] as more basic data journalism skills become more common.”

Ottewell also returned to the theme of data journalism’s growing maturity within the industry, asking for a “brutally honest effort-versus-reward assessment” and cautioning against reporters wariness of metrics.

“We shouldn’t have a free pass just because it’s data journalism.”

He called for the sector to ask itself whether we should be looking beyond stories as the default mode of reporting. Could reporters focus on providing the data itself more; should they be looking more towards quizzes, games and other formats. “Should it always be on the website or could it go somewhere else? Could it be an app, or a microsite?”

Following the money

Open Contracting’s Hera Hussain‘s role in the open data sector provided a useful reminder of the challenges in accessing the most important data that journalists should be looking at.

Repeating the mantra “Public procurement is not a niche,” Hussain outlined some of the ‘red flags’ that reporters should look for when investigating the awarding of public money, and some of the steps that her organisation had taken to make it easier to scrutinise that data, including a data standard and tools for coders.

As for where the money is coming from, Google’s Sarah Hartley took the opportunity to provide a sneak peek at the replacement for the recently closed Digital News Initiative.

The Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge will launch in different places at different times in the coming months, she explained – but when it comes back to Europe “the theme will be local”.

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