Every journalist can and should be a data journalist because data is almost always the underlying asset in any fact-based piece, says Nicolas Kayser-Bril, a data journalism expert, for Media.ba.
Tell us about Owni.fr and your achievements while you worked for the website.
Owni.fr was, when I worked there, a kind of lab for new storytelling formats. We tried to experiment a lot in data journalism, long-form journalism, collaborative journalism etc. It worked for a while, but it proved too expensive to maintain. The company started nosediving in December 2010 and I left it 6 months later when I saw that there was no going back. The company recently announced that they were finally closing down.
We led several amazing projects. We carried out two crowdsourcing operations based on Wikileaks data, on the Afghan and Iraqi war logs. What was really exciting was to be a part of the Wikileaks momentum, although the projects themselves were only mildly successful. In the Afghan case, we set up a platform where users could easily find Sigacts (records) about French troops (at the time the story had been covered by outlets from the U.S., UK and Germany only) and then rate and comment on them. Several veterans from NATO operations took part in the operation and this led to interesting findings. Wikileaks saw that and asked us for a similar platform for the Iraqi logs. This project was less successful, mainly because it was too popular. We had several hundred thousand users, most of whom had no clue about what a Sigact was.
Another project I'm really proud of is something we did for Fondation France Libertés, called "The Price of Water"
. We asked users to upload their water bill and close to 10,000 people did, which put a lot of pressure on water utilities to be more transparent. The bills were uploaded as images, and users had the possibility to convert the data from the image in a machine-readable format. This led to several articles being published. The problem in France is that water is a privatized business operating at the city level. There are 2 major companies providing water and 36,000 cities that have to provide water. Information on the market is very distorted: Most cities have no clue what prices are, whereas the 2 giant companies know everything.
Which projects done with Journalism++ are you particularly fond of or consider very innovative?
We are taking part in the development of the best data visualization tool for journalists: Datawrapper
, a project led by Mirko Lorenz and developed by Gregor Aisch. We are also developing a new kind of crowdsourcing platform called Feowl
, which polls users at regular intervals to know more about the number of power cuts they suffer from. And we have a lot of cool stuff coming up in 2013 :)
I really like "100 Years of World Cuisine"
, a visualization of data on victims from 25 conflicts around the world, which I did with a professional photographer Marion Kotlarski
. It started as a conversation on the lines of "wouldn't it be interesting to visualize the number of victims of different countries to give a sense of perspective?" This was especially interesting as we discovered how complicated it was to find the precise number of victims in a conflict. Media reports tend to give one single number, whereas the actual number depends on the start and end dates of the conflict, which can vary from one account to another, on the geographical scope etc. Should the approximately 200 victims of the 2001 Macedonia events be included in the death toll of the “Yugoslav wars”, for instance? We wrote a long list of explanations along with the picture and ended up with a beautiful photograph
that has been viewed by over 100,000 people worldwide and was hung at exhibitions and inserted in a book.
You conducted a number of data journalism trainings, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What did you teach, what particular techniques and methods?
The most important thing I try to convey during trainings is that data is a very useful resource and that journalists should be curious about it and develop the skills to understand it (basic statistical literacy is one of them), as well as learn how to use some tools to analyze and visualize the data. During the training in Bosnia, we worked with Google Fusion Table, which allows journalists to take a large table containing geographical data (such as addresses or cities) and display the information on a map very rapidly.
We also used Google Charts, the simple visualization solution that comes out of the box with Google Spreadsheets. We also went for expert tools like Google Refine (soon to be Open Refine), which is great to correct typos and small mistakes in large data sets, as well as several other tools. During one week the trainees produced original stories based on data, going all the way from data collection (such as calling public authorities) to data visualization and publication.
What is your experience training Bosnian journalists as opposed to journalists in France or in other countries? What are differences and similarities?
Besides a beautiful location, there was little to differentiate this training in Bosnia from others I led in France or Senegal or Lithuania. Journalists always find it hard to accept that knowing their way around numerical data is actually something that can help them tell better stories.
How would you advise a self-taught beginner in data journalism? Where to start from?
The first starting point, in my opinion, is to get curious about numbers and the stories you can tell with them. Books like Freakonomics
, Calculated Risks
or The Tiger that Isn't
are good places to start. Then, it's all about mastering the tools, but that's not the hardest part. Online tools are so numerous that one burgeoning data journalist is sure to find the right ones for him or her.
What are some essential data journalism tools you find necessary for every journalists who embarks on data journalism adventure?
My favorite is Google Refine (soon-to-be Open Refine). It handily replaces Excel but it's open-source and much more powerful. Google Docs is also great to collect all your data in one place. When it comes to data visualization, Datawrapper is my personal favorite, but I might be biased as it's a product I take part in developing :)
Can every journalists be a data journalist and should they be?
Yes. Data is almost always the underlying asset in any fact-based piece. A "data journalist" is only a journalist that realizes that and is able to take this data to its full potential. We needed a new term for this kind of journalism because it's new and it comes with a lot of tools many journalists aren't familiar with. But telephones and typewriters were also revolutions in newsrooms, in their time. No one would talk of telephone-journalism today. It'll be the same with data journalism in a few years.
At what point is it wise for journalists to seek help from data professionals, such as your company?
We at Journalism++ are tech people. Journalists call us when they have ambitious projects they cannot do themselves, especially when it involves a lot of programming. It's all about the resources a newsroom can have in-house. Some will only let their journalists master the basics of data journalism. Others will hire "editorial developers" to work with journalists and develop bigger projects. Others still, like the New York Times, have all the skills in-house, from statisticians to designers. Not everyone can do this, and that's why you see more and more companies such as ours whose main mission is to enable storytellers to get their message out online in an efficient way.