The other week I took part in a data journalism course. Now, I am not particularly drawn to Excel and spreadsheets and suchlike, but I’ve gathered there’s a lot of buzz around data journalism these days. Governments are opening their data online and at least here in the UK there’s a lively community around the open data movement. Also, we have the hacks/hackers meetups where journos and programmers come together.
As I am writing a book about the future of journalism, I thought I needed to find out what it’s all about.
The course taught me a lot of gimmicks about Google Docs and other software, like the very crude-looking Map-A-List and the more interesting IBM development Many Eyes. These tools are free for all, but they do need certain kind of data in order to give you usable results.
There is a lot of open-source software being developed for data visualisations right now, and I believe we’ll soon have much more sophisticated tools to play with. Meanwhile, I would be more interested in thinking of ways to find the stories in the data. The data journalism course was lacking in the editorial side of things.
Much more interesting was David McCandless’ talk last night in Oxford. In case you haven’t seen his work yet, his website and book Information is Beautiful is truly inspiring and should make you think of data differently. His approach to data is unorthodox, thus hilarious and as far as I know, unique. He’ll have some copycats soon enough, though.
Here’s McCandless’ take on the UK government debt crisis, Debtris. It’s the “updated Tetris for Austerity Britain.”
After his talk I went over to ask him if he thought open data was going to transform journalism. He said he was a bit ambivalent about it nowadays.
“It is really difficult to find a big story in data. I can’t think of one”, he said.
So is data visualisation just another way to make important but boring numerical stuff more accessible and interesting to the public? That’s not a small achievement, but I still hope that some journalists have the stamina to mine a lot of government data. There must be a big story lurking there, somewhere.