Digital technology has exponentially increased our ability to create, spread and archive data. What remains unresolved is how everyday folks can make sense of it all. Governments that have extensive data compilations, for instance, are expected to be more and more transparent with the data they own. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they present it in a fashion that is easy to comprehend. Making thousands of spreadsheets available online doesn’t do much if no one can extract any knowledge or wisdom from them. This is why, at the crossroads of humanities, politics and total geekness, data journalism exists.
Earlier this month Media McGill and Radio Canada invited a few international players in the data-journalism scene to discuss this growing field at Data, Stories & Co.: The Future of Data Journalism. It was an exciting, multi-disciplinary conference featuring programmers, journalists, designers, academics, anthropologists and activists all interested in making the most of what the Internet has to offer.
Overview Project’s Jonathan Stray outlined what data journalism consists of by presenting examples such as the work coming out of the Guardian’s exploratory Data Blog. Berlin-based journalist and founder of Open Data City, Lorenz Matzat, discussed some of the work he has done both to retrieve data that is unavailable (German railway delays) and to warn the public about how much personal data is readily available (a story on the amount of personal phone information made public via Die Zeit’s online platform).
In very basic terms, data journalism takes a lot of dry information (anything from peoples’ birthdays and the location of bike accidents, to government spending and deaths in Iraq) and transforms it into a readable (and sometimes interactive) graphic. It makes data digestible, but like all journalism, it requires one to choose certain variables over others, indirectly revealing only certain trends and facts.
For instance, in 2009 the New York Times came out with an interactive feature about unemployment statistics in the USA between January 2007 and September 2009. It enabled the reader to discover that while the average unemployment rate in September 2009 was at 8.6%, 48.5% of African American men without a high school degree aged 15 to 24 were unemployed and 3.6% of Caucasian women with a college degree between 25 and 44 years of age were jobless.
Leaving the conference, it was clear that we must transform the Internet into a portal that facilitates sharing, contribution and understanding of the information it holds. As the attention span of the average Internet user decreases and the amount of information available online increases, it is safe to say that data journalism has a bright future.
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