It’s incredible how much has changed in a year. It’s been about a year since I started to really think about news and technology seriously and about ten months since I took on the role of an Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellow. While on this journey, I’ve felt a gradual and positive change in the world of journalism and its relationship with technology.
Technology applied is a wonderful thing and much credit must go to OpenNews lead Dan Sinker for realising that the world of journalism was ripe for its application. I see Dan as modern-day Druid, this is thanks in no small part to his spectacular beard in which he keeps kitchen utensils and the smaller of his gardening tools, but it chiefly comes down to his leadership style; he’s more a co-conspirator than a boss, someone who provides inspiration and support - in many ways your archetypal bearded spiritual guide.
I’m a little different to the other fellows, a little older, a little slower and I have a young family which means I opted not to be embedded in Al Jazeera, Doha and work remotely. So when I travel to Qatar to visit the newsroom in the desert, I like to make the most of it.
As fellows we are encouraged to see each other’s work environments and I managed to organise for Nicola Hughes — ex-fellow with The Guardian — to fly over at the same time and give a course on a subject close to her heart - Data Journalism. This was a big win for me. It showed that with a bit of persistence we can actually organise events thousands of miles away that will hopefully make a tangible and positive difference to a news organisation.
Luckily my contacts in the newsroom did a great job in paving the way and it turns out Nicola is a natural teacher so it all went splendidly. We gave an overview in the AJE boardroom where people as diverse as Dick Cheney, Adriana Huffington, Kevin Rose and Senior Hamas officials have been known to congregate (not necessarily at the same time). It was encouraging to see a large cross-section of AJ English and Arabic in attendance. The main cut and thrust of the course was about how to find stories in data and to that end, how the journalist can scrape, refine, store, query and visualise data. It’s worth dwelling on this whole data journalism concept a little, it’s pretty amazing for several reasons:
- There are big stories in big data, it’s just a matter of finding them.
- Traditional investigative journalism is expensive. Data Journalism is investigative journalism done cheaply.
- Increasingly more data is being made available by organisations and governments.
- Data well presented can tell a story. Sometimes very few words or opinions are required.
- Readers can do their own investigating if you give them the option. Readers like to share their perspective.
I’m interested in all aspects of data journalism but the bit that really inspires me is data visualisation - how we present that information to the reader in a meaningful and beautiful way. Yes beautiful - the aesthetic is important, so is the design of course, likewise the content - all fundamental parts of a good visualisation - that’s what makes it so much fun. Admittedly Edward Tufte has had his due influence on me, when I read his work something just clicks and when I meet another Tufte admirer, we click. It’s almost like there’s this secret underground pipe-smoking bohemian society that believes information can and indeed should be beautiful.
The Web is the Medium
And then there’s our old friend the World Wide Web - a medium that is fast maturing into a vibrant and interactive canvas for presenting data. We have libraries born from news organisations and the strong desire to visualise data in new ways. We have interactivity. We have transitions. We have transparency. We have community. We have a low cost method of getting shit out there. The web has always been the ideal platform to present data and now it’s becoming the ideal place to visualise data. This is an exciting place. I might want to hang around a bit.
Making a Difference
I was happy to not just bring Al Jazeera and Nicola together in this way, but also be part of the data journalism course itself, I talked a little about visualisations and gave a session on a library called D3.js. The good news is that Al Jazeera are now looking to run the course again and they have committed to investing in data journalism next year.