The International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, this year (as always) brought together senior journalists and other experts in communications to discuss the biggest issues and events facing the media.
I followed about a dozen sessions on data journalism. Most panelists agreed that data is an increasingly valuable "source" of information. Read my round-up here:
(First published on Umbria Radio, 4 May 2014)
The digital age has led to an explosion in the collection of information on just about everything.
Governments as well as corporations like Google and Facebook are getting better and better at collecting and scrutinising information on a large scale.
Even smaller businesses, local councils and other groups are collecting data to better target their services and advertising.
While this type of surveillance has been criticised, it presents journalists with an opportunity.
So-called data journalists can access a growing amount of information that’s freely available online or elsewhere – data that’s called “open data”.
This week, data journalism has been the focus of many sessions at the International Journalism Festival for 2014, in Perugia.
Latin American journalist Mariana Santos told one session these journalists analyse sometimes-enormous data sets to uncover discrepancies, strange patterns or interesting occurrences.
“Nowadays, almost everything we do, the movements of transport and immigration, everything is registered. These registers are made in a data form, whether it is imagery, Twitter, Facebook posts, government registers. If you have access to millions of data points, you can make estimations or cross-reference these databases,” she said.
Looking at the data can expose crime, government inefficiencies or even help fact-check politicians’ statements.
And Mariana Santos, a Knight International Journalism Fellow, says data can even expose previously unknown issues.
“For instance, this actually happened in Argentina, a President was saying that he was in three places at the same time requesting funding for all the trips, plus ten or twelve bodyguards etc. So combining databases you can have access to information you wouldn’t otherwise. If you ask the President where were you on the 5th of December he would tell you one place and actually if you match databases maybe you find that wasn’t true - maybe he checked into another country. So it’s information you cannot access by interviewing but you can access by facts. And you have access to much wider range of facts that can lead you to conclusions,” she said.
David Del Monte from Transparency International Italia told the Festival this form of journalism could even help expose corruption.
“I’m sure that data journalism is important, essential for the fight against corruption. Because it’s the duty of a civil society and associations like my association and the duty of journalists to analyse and investigate and then present the result to the citizens,” he said.
Still Lorenzo Segato from RiSSC in Italy, an organisation that studies security and crime, says there are still a number of challenges.
“So the public administration has a lot of information but most of it, at least in Italy, is still on paper, especially if you go back in time and try to investigate a cold case. But this process is ongoing. But most of the information that is going to be published by the public administration is not specifically relevant. So the perception is most of the interesting data is not open yet, not only because the public administration doesn’t want to open the information but especially because we still don’t know which data should be opened," he said.
Mr Segato says a lack of a Freedom of Information laws make it much harder for journalists to access the information they might need.
“So we have found some strange publishing of tenders: the 24th of December or the 14th of August with a very short deadline for submitting proposals. And of course there is only one applicant. This is information that is not open, but opening it would be very interesting to see when the calls are going out. It’s a kind of risk indicator,” he said.
Latin American journalist Mariana Santos says journalists – particularly women – can fear learning the technical skills required.
And many experts speaking at the Journalism Festival say journalists should collaborate with other media organisations, even in other countries, to share their knowledge about tackling common problems.
Ms Santos says this is particularly important in places like Latin America where there are additional challenges.
“So for instance compared to Europe and the United States when we want to know something we just Google it and we know the English word to Google but in Latin America not everyone speaks English, not everybody knows how to search for something so if you don’t know what to search for how can you get the information about it? So the concept of self-taught journalists is limited. They want to learn but they don’t know where to start. So we try to bring experts into the region where experts can share their knowledge with people who don’t have so much access,” she said.
Data journalists often work with graphic designers, photographers, videographers, web designers and developers to communicate the information in interactive ways that are easy to understand.
Professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism Steve Doig says not all data journalism is serious – it can be about sport, weather and social trends too.
Mr Doig says his most popular story analysed pet names chosen in his local area.
And he says basic mathematics and Excel skills can be enough… as long as the journalist is accurate and still able to tell a good story.
“There certainly are journalists who have wonderful statistical tools and knowledge to be able to do stories about very complicated data sets. I’ve seen marvelous work done by organisations like the Centre for Public Integrity and so on where they’ve taken data sets of literally billions of Medicare records, for instance, and exposed fraud that’s been going on there. That’s not something that somebody can sit down and do in an afternoon on Excel – that’s very high-level work. So there are people who can do work at that level.”
Wired Italy’s Guido Romeo agrees that while new technology and an increasing amount of open data makes this type of journalism more prevalent, traditional journalism skills are still required.
“I have data sets, digital data, I can gather from government and social media I can collect myself. So it’s a paradigm shift in the way we do journalism. It’s not that this thing will revolutionise journalism. I mean the same rules still apply – you still have to do all your checking, your interviewing but you have another source which is data, which you need to interview, you need to be sceptical, as with all sources, but which you can reap great benefits from,” he said.
For more information visit:
Data Journalism Handbook
Open Knowledge Foundation
European Journalism Centre
Data Driven Journalism