Data Journalism – not just for media types

Yesterday evening, (23rd September 2014), on a wet and trafficky night in Manchester, I went to an Open Data Manchester meetup at The Shed – Manchester Metropolitan University’s Digital Innovation Lab. I was late, because of the wet and the traffic. I was also, for reasons that will go unexplained, running to the event through Manchester in a fluorescent emergency jacket.

@_datapreneur in a fluorescent jacket
Picture courtesy @stevieflow

The event was a data journalism special, and brought together some of the leading practitioners and experts in the data and digital journalism fields.

Speaking were Francois Nel and Megan Knight from the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Central Lancashire; Paul Gallagher, Digital Innovations Editor at the Manchester Evening News; Aidan McGuire of ScraperWiki; and David Ottewell, Head of the Data Journalism Team for the Regions at the Trinity Mirror Media Group (basically the big regional newspapers, like the Manchester Evening News, and the Liverpool Echo).

Megan Knight and Francois Nel were first up, talking about data journalism around the globe, why data journalism matters, and that the only way to get better at data journalism is to keep doing it.

Very good questions were asked of the pair, one about checking the accuracy of data, one around business models, and a very interesting question, about what the career options are for prospective data journalists, given that news sites, such as the Guardian Datablog, do not pay for content. This, in particular, got me thinking. More on this later…

Next up was Paul Gallagher, of the Manchester Evening News, who spoke of the ways that digital is changing newsrooms, with live-blogging, social media, and other technologies.

Paul Gallagher of Manchester Evening News speaks at Open Data Manchester
Paul Gallagher (@pdgallagher) of Manchester Evening News speaks at Open Data Manchester

A fine example he gave was that the fire at Manchester Dogs Home was live-blogged, a freelance drone operator was commissioned to take aerial photographs of the scene, and the MEN set up a Just Giving page, which had reached over £1 million of donations before the newspaper went to print.

Aidan McGuire of ScraperWiki then revealed some new tools that ScraperWiki had been developing to support data journalists – for both obtaining data, and working with data.

Finally – David Ottewell, Head of Data Journalism at Trinity Mirror spoke about data journalism in practice.

David Ottewell, of Trinity Mirror, speaks at Open Data Manchester (picture courtesy
David Ottewell, of Trinity Mirror, speaks at Open Data Manchester (picture courtesy @stevieflow)

He ran through an incredible number of examples of the sorts of work that his team do. From a World War One soldier search tool , to ‘Real Schools Guide‘ (which, incidentally, caused a flurry of activity in this Local Authority).

What really struck me, though, were the parallels between David’s team, and the Innovation and Intelligence Lab here in Trafford. We are both made up of a collection of analyst-types (Data owners/analysts in Trafford, data journalists in Trinity Mirror), a coder, and David has a graphic designer, which I want, and am currently trying to demonstrate a need for.

The outputs are similar as well, in that we are both trying to use data to tell stories. The eventual outcomes are slightly different, though. David and his team are primarily trying to engage with the public, and while we also need to engage with public, we are also trying to use the data that we have to reduce demand on our services, redesign those services, or attract investment into Trafford.

This is where I think we need to get better. We are very good at interpreting, analysing and visualising data, but I suspect that the stuff we come up with could be delivered to the public, service leads, political leaders etc in story form, and it would be much more compelling.

Which goes back to the question asked of the University lecturers – what career paths are there for data journalism students? I would really like a trained data journalist to work out of my Innovation and Intelligence Lab. I think all organisations that hold and use data could do with someone trained / skilled in data journalism to help make sense of it all, especially in the public sector. These people could take on the role of writing good news stories for comms teams to push out on Councils’ blogs. They could turn lots and lots of data and information into properly-readable articles for service leads about the services they are responsible for, and could offer a new way to gain and use customer insight.

This might be something of a hard-sell to those who approve the creation of new posts, particularly with finances the way they are. So for now, my immediate take-away from the Open Data Manchester event is that I will encourage all staff in The Lab to do the free online Doing Journalism with Data Course, which will at least ensure everyone is at the same level in terms of understanding tools and techniques.

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