This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Data Journalism - Another Tool for Creating New Community Paradigms

Besides taking the ongoing STW/STIA Systems Thinking Certification course, there was also an opportunity to participate in a Doing Journalism with Data, First Steps, Skills and Tool course put on by the Data Driven Journalism site as part of the European Journalism Centre’s Data Driven Journalism initiative, a hub for news and resources from the community of journalists, editors, designers and developers who use data in the service of journalism.

The organizer is based in Europe but this blog has had no issue with adopting resources from Europe, Great Britain, Canada or anywhere else if it can help engage and empower communities. There is also a USA version of the course being provided through the Knight Foundation’s Knight Center for Journalism called INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM IN THE DIGITAL AGE, but it is much further along and was only just discovered so it will be covered in subsequent posts. The Knight Foundation was featured in a post from 2011 that is one of the building blocks for this effort, Finding the soul of your community and the reason to create your own community paradigms, more later on that as well. 

While there aren’t any plans on becoming a data journalist or having this blog become a data journalism site, there is still an important role that this type of information gathering and dissemination could play in creating new community paradigms. 

The first basic question addressed in the class is ‘What is data journalism?’ It is learning to use the techniques of data journalism (which changes all the time) to find the best possible way to tell a story using numbers.

Data, as  the course points out, has always been a part of how news organizations work. Historically, this also includes those using information to bring about change. Doctor John Snow's mapping of a cholera outbreaks in nineteenth century London changed how we saw how a disease progresses and serves as a model for data journalism today. Another surprising historical example, at least for me, is Florence Nightingale’s key report, ‘Mortality of the British Army’, published in 1858, which presented statistics on the Crimean War regarding war dead. The report documented changes in procedures at military hospitals initiated by Nightingale during the Crimean War and was illustrated using statistical diagrams.

Journalism’s job still remains reporting facts in a manner that people can understand more about issues that matter to them.  The added goal of data journalism is to bring numerical data to life making it possible not only to be understood, but I would add also to make it actionable. 

The basis for this ability is easy access to a variety of often free tools and other resources and their ease of use. This is one of the primary purposes of the New Community Paradigm Wiki
Today data journalism can reveal the numbers behind the news, on a national level as through the Associated Press,  US Election results 2012 interactive visualization. At the local news level, even with relatively little resources, it can tell stories that work for local communities, as  with the  Washington DC income gap (DC Action for Children). It can also be a watchdog on local community politicians, as the Texas Tribune did with it’s Ethics Explorer, A guide to the Financial Interests of Elected Officials.

This depends upon greater availability to open data though that is still an ongoing process. Hopefully, this will mean the development of a greater network of trust through increased transparency between those creating and generating data and those who are depending upon it. 

The skills required for data journalism are a collaboration between coding, designing, and journalism applied to a variety of different media products ranging from visualization to long form articles. It is the process of turning numbers into a story, regardless of whether the story is composed of words or of graphics.

There are different approaches to creating data journalism stories. The Lone Ranger approach is when you are able to do everything by yourself. This is possible because of tools now available such as those found in the Data Driven Journalism ecosystem. These include tools like OpenRefine, Datawrapper, Tableau, Google Fusion Tables, CartoDBYou could also have two person teams, like the Guardian's DDJ team in the USA that created the award winning Guide to gay rights in the US story or a small scale team capable of producing innovative projects quickly like the 'Flooding and Flood Zones' map Hurricane Sandy by WNYC.

It is large teams, like the New York Times that have the resources and the capacity to implement a deliberate strategy to create a new kind of online journalism. They can help with finding ways to tell the story better. An example is their 2012 Olympic Experience.

The size of the team is not everything though. Data journalism, according to the European Journalism Centre Data Journalism course, is about making friends which means it is about community.  The course is designed to  start out with smaller things, what that story will be, how to turn the numbers into stories and give you the basic skills to practice on your own or as part of a team with the potential of becoming part of a movement. The essential thing to remember is that anyone can do it. As the course states, you don't need to compete with the New York Times or The Guardian.  Starting small can lead though to bigger things.  Argentina's La Nacion, considered by many the best data journalism site in South America, started without a programmer using free software. What is important is the information. There are times when quick, messily created pieces can be hits having tremendous impact.  Even visualization is not always required for a compelling story. What is vital is getting the correct facts.

Data, the basic stuff, the building blocks of data journalism, is usually organized for use in commonly used formatted spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel or Numbers. The key is the selection of the data. The fewer numbers you use to tell the story, the better.  This makes research the most important role but also the most tedious and time consuming, having to dig around in data on the basis of a journalistic hunch that may not pan out. 

If you adopt the Lone Ranger approach then you are going to have to do your own coding. If you have a team, particularly a small team, then your coders can also assist with research on the front end and visualization on the back end. A good team will effectively coordinate who can write and who can code. One notable example sited by the course is Reuter’s Connected China. Designers are those who can make visualizations happen. The example provide by the course is the Guardian’s 99% vs 1%.

At the end of the day though it is the words of the story that give context to the numbers, without context numbers are just numbers.  The Guardian’s Yearly guide to public spending by each government department  helps to explain the data.

“Public spending in 2011-12 was £694.89bn - compared to £689.63bn in 2010-11. That may look like an increase but once inflation is taken into account, it is a real-terms cut of 1.58%, or £10.8bn.”

I will finish up by letting Simon Rogers, one of the instructors for the course, sum it all up in this TEDxPantheonSorbonne video. 

Today, data is increasingly accessible and simple to use, allowing journalists to develop a new way of sharing news. This revolution in the use of data is also accompanied by the increasing importance of data-journalists newsmakers, amateurs, representatives from the crowd ... No specific skills, unfailing motivation: the data-journalists are punks sharing of information.”

Past Posts