Reams of raw data are the tools of transparency

For a new generation of journalists, there is never too much information. It is raw material for stories

Infomania: software can transform spreadsheet data into easy-to-grasp visualisations. Illustration: Biddiboo/PC

Infomania: software can transform spreadsheet data into easy-to-grasp visualisations. Illustration: Biddiboo/PC

 

“Data” has become a buzzword in journalism in recent years, as technological advances have allowed for increased analysis, interpretation and presentation of the swathes of information now at our fingertips.

Data has always been part of the journalistic tool kit. But the volume and accessibility of data, combined with technological advances that help collect, analyse and clean data – as well as visualisation software, such as interactive maps – mean journalists, bloggers, web designers, statisticians and programmers are now able to analyse, contextualise and present data in new ways.

Simon Rogers, the outgoing editor of the ‘Guardian’ website’s Datablog, explains that data journalism as taking information in its raw form and analysing and contextualising it for the reader.

“There is loads and loads of data out there and loads of stories hidden in that data. What you find is that actually the data itself . . . gets zero traffic. But if you can give people context as well, then you’re giving them value; you’re assisting them interpret that data and helping them understand what it means,” he says.

The ‘Guardian’ Datablog has been a forerunner in this regard, using software to transform spreadsheet data into easy-to-grasp visualisations and interactive maps and charts.


Media establishment
Rogers says that that data journalism’s big moment came with WikiLeaks, as everyone began to realise the value of this form of journalism.

WikiLeaks, which holds that publishing information “improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people”, has leaked millions of documents since its inception, in 2006. In 2010 a leak of almost 400,000 secret US military logs relating to Iraq was the largest ever leak of US classified documents. Iraq became the most documented war in history.

But data journalism does not have to be fuelled by high-profile leaks; increasingly, the open-data movement is calling for transparency to be a cornerstone of government policy. Gavin Sheridan of thestory.ie, an Irish website dedicated to publishing documents and data as a way to promote transparency in public life, has long advocated the idea that the Government should be publishing data, which he says leads to greater transparency and accountability.

He adds that although there has been some movement towards this – such as the work of dublinked.ie, a data-sharing initiative between Dublin’s four local authorities and NUI Maynooth; the Open Data Ireland forum; and the publication of spending data by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform – much more could be done here to promote open data.

Sheridan believes that people have a right to access data, especially about how public money is being spent. “If you pay taxes you should get a receipt. There is no receipt in the Irish system,” he says. “Greater proactive publication of data will lead to greater sunlight, greater transparency.”

Data journalism is increasingly part of the tool kit of ‘The Irish Times’. The Crime Statistics Ireland series last year saw us analyse recorded crime statistics for every Garda station in the country, using traditional journalism skills to give depth to the trends shown by the figures. What might otherwise have been just figures on a spreadsheet was brought to life by interactive tables that allowed irishtimes.com users to look at crime statistics from their local station.

Similarly, when the Government shut Garda stations earlier this year we were able to map the closures online, to help people visualise where the closures were taking place.

Data journalism also goes on behind the scenes; increasingly, stories that end up as words on a newspaper page begin their journey through the newsroom as numbers on a spreadsheet. It’s the job of our relatively new but growing team of data journalists to find the stories in the figures.

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