Crucial elements of data journalism

Data tools and advice

Data journalism is a form of investigative journalism that tells a story through graphs, maps and other infographics. Peter Aldhous, a US-based journalist, says it is also a form of investigative journalism. It isn’t just about the figures but a good data story is a combination of various elements that are explored below.

Know where to find data 

Knowing where to find data is crucial

William Shubert, a senior project coordinator at the Earth Journalism Network (EJN), says knowing where to find is a useful skill for data journalists.

Adi Eyal, the director for Code for South Africa, an organisation pushing for open data, says the starting point in looking for data is online.

Finding data online is ideal for journalists working in Africa where some governments have put controls on the type of information that can be released.

Eyal’s organisation created a site that provides information about ward councillors in Western Cape and the projects that they are working on. Some of the data was scrapped from the website of the City of Cape Town and some came from government departments. Eyal says looking for data from various sources to use in a single data story is ideal for journalists.

“There is a lot of data available. Look for data from all sorts of places,” he says.

Countries like Kenya have made it easy by creating its own open data site. In South Africa, the Promotion of Acccess to Information Act enables data enthusiasts and journalists to access information from state departments.

Scrapping data

It doesn’t end with finding the right sources of data. Quite often the data comes in a format that is not easy to extract and analyse.

No need for a headache: tutorials will show you how to scrap the data

There are also various free tools that allow journalists and other users to extract data. These include outwit hub, google refine and import.io. Using them requires knowledge. Code for South Africa is part of a network of African open data organisations. Other networks are in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya and they provide training to help journalists acquire such skills.

EJN also provides training and online resources that journalists can use. One such resource is the geojournalism handbook, which provides tutorials. Data journalism writer and trainer Paul Bradshaw also provides tutorials on his online blog.

Query the data 

Aldhous says querying the data is an important part of the journalistic process. Most journalists don’t have these kind of skills but will need to “befriend” a scientist who can help with the statistical analysis of the data, says Steve Connor, the science editor for The Independent.

Don’t take the data at face value

Querying would involve being aware of problems the data set has.

“What is missing from it? What errors does it have? Question everything. Check it out. If your mother says she loves you, you check it out,” Aldhous says.

Querying would also clear biases to ensure that that journalists “don’t debunk bad science by doing bad science,” says Deborah Cohen, the investigative editor at the BMJ.

Analysis and visualisation

Visualisation will help attract the reader to your story

Querying also involves analysis to see what trends are derived from it. Providing it in a tabular form or in an excel document can be quite daunting for the reader. There are data tools that are available that help journalists to visualise their data in a way that makes it palatable and easy to read. Such tools include Datawrapper, Geobatch, and Tableau.

Writing the story 

Be clear and concise

A data story isn’t just about the numbers. Brad Parks, the executive director of AidData, a good data story has to “break it down to something understandable.” It must be relevant and timely too, he says.

Aldhous says it must be accompanied by a compelling narrative that would be easy and enjoyable to ready.

Data journalists to use skills to resolve conflict in the Congo Basin

The stories

Journalists in Central Africa hope to use data to aid in efforts to resolve conflict and illegal timber trading in the region.

Project will map extent of degradation

Project will map extent of degradation

Illegal timber trading is decimating the forest reserves in the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rain forest. Much of the trading is fuelled by government troops and rebels to pay for war related expenses in the  Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The impact of the decimation on communities hasn’t been documented but journalists in Central Africa are hoping to change that. Ten publications from Cameroon, the DRC, and the Republic of Congo are joining forces to collect data that would help map the extent of environmental degradation in the Congo Basin.

Five-year project

The publications will work together in a five-year collaborative project that is being coordinated by Earth Journalism Network (EJN), says EJN senior project coordinator, William Shubert.

“We will collect information from satellites,” Shubert says.

For EJN, using the data from satellites is also a solution to the challenges of the unavailability and inaccessibility to data that many African countries face.

He says for journalists working in countries that have strict controls on data, using existing data sets may help them leverage national governments to make data available.

Shubert, who uses the term geojournalism to describe the work that the journalists will do, says they will use satellite data to map the extent of the degradation in the rain forest.

People’s stories will provide context

They will not stop at that. The journalists are hoping to speak to local communities whose lives have been impacted by the degradation so their stories can provide meaning to the data.

“A data journalist must be able to translate knowledge to their communities. We will use data as evidence and use people’s stories to provide context of what the data means,” he says.

It also helps to make the stories easier to read and palatable for the general public, he adds.

Data to transform lives

Data to change lives

Data to change lives

Shubert believes in the potential of data journalism to transform the lives of communities that journalists work in. He says journalists will need to acquire a diversity of skills to be able to fulfil this role.

This is a lesson the organisation learnt from InfoAmazonia, a project that they developed to map logging and deforestation in the Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest. EJN also developed Ekuatorial.

His organisation will provide training to journalists involved in the Congo Basin project to enable them to analyse, visualise and contextualise the data that they collect. The first meeting will be held in September.

“Building such a network will help to get the stories to readers in various countries and in the international community,” he says.

The meeting will also teach the journalists how to access data.

“To know where to get data and how it can be useful is an important skill for a data journalist,” Shubert says.

Picture credit: Flickr/David Holt and See-ming Lee