Let Me Help: Use Data to Connect with Readers

Journalism connects people with information, and data storytelling connects narratives to individuals. The former is what kept me a newspaper subscriber for three years, something I explore in this post  on “lock-in” and resistance to adapt to new technologies. The latter is illustrated in examples such as the Washington Post’s Fiscal Cliff calculator and the site Syria Deeply. Why is engagement through, for example, interactive graphics and participatory journalism important? What does “engagement” even mean?

Poynter’s Matt Thompson included it in the “Buzzwurgatory,” a collection of those vague terms we put in headlines so the Google bots will find our page. Engagement may euphemistically refer to attracting more readers, he writes, but it should focus on incorporating the audience into our work. This helps journalists ensure they’re covering the “right” stories. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates recently tweeted a link to a 1996 James Fallows piece, “Why Americans Hate the Media.” Fallows describes how journalists consistently focus on the political horse race at the expense of digging into the policy questions that actually impact individuals. He writes:

“When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars.”

Data storytelling does that. The tools that exist to display information, from data visualizations to interactive databases to geocoded maps, encourage readers to explore. Take the Chicago Tribune’s Illinois School Report Card database, which enables readers to filter data by school name or address and also to examine trends among the whole system. Articles offer context to the data. The Guardian’s Datastore encourages Flickr users to submit photos of their own mashups that use Datablog information. And Syria Deeply calls on the audience to contribute information about a conflict that few journalists can access:

“Single-topic platforms, such as Syria Deeply, are not made up of a team of journalists and editors reporting to a passive audience. Instead, they embrace participatory journalism in which civilian journalists can collaborate and contribute to the news process with personal stories and firsthand accounts. As a platform, we are then able to aggregate and curate the most useful content on that topic into one space.”

Nonprofit organizations also find data storytelling a helpful tool to evaluate their services and ensure their funding provides the most benefit for people. GlobalGiving collects stories from individuals in Kenya and Uganda, feeds them into a software called Sensemaker, and derives insights that improve its operation and ultimately help the organization better accomplish its mission.

Through a course in online communities, I’m learning the principles behind how people behave and connect online. Understanding this helps data storytellers promote engagement, in the fullest sense of the word.

What are the most engaging examples of data storytelling you’ve seen lately? Write a comment and let everyone know.


Policy Provides Context to Understand Data

How many rewards cards hang on your keychain? How many website accounts do you maintain? How much information do you share with organizations? Type your name into Spokeo and see what comes up. Chances are, it’s pretty accurate.

Many places collect personal information; that’s nothing new. But combine the ability to store unlimited amounts of data, aggregate and analyze massive datasets, and instantly release information into the public realm. You get the power to use customer behavior to determine when women are pregnant. You get maps that show addresses of people licensed to own pistols. You get the question of how aggressively to prosecute someone who downloads too many articles.

What are the implications of this? Thinking from a policy perspective can help journalists spur discussions around the role and use of data.

Take the case of Target’s data mining to pinpoint pregnant customers. Companies can link data they collect from customer interactions, data from public records, and data they purchase from third parties to build extremely detailed profiles of people. Do terms of use and privacy policies adequately convey this potential? These terms govern nearly every organization we interact with; is it possible to escape data collection? What policies, organizational or regulatory, can enable consumers to control their own data? Do consumers even care?

Journalists should also consider the policy implications of their own work. For example, the New York-based Journal News obtained gun license data, which was public, and mapped the addresses of those licensed to own pistols. This sparked an outcry among citizens and triggered debate among media circles as to whether “journalists have a free pass to do whatever they want with public-record data.” New York state then passed legislation that removed such information from public access. The incident reminds journalists to ask the question, “What do I hope to accomplish with this story,” at each step of the reporting process.

Government use of data is another area ripe for data storytelling. As Scott Shackford writes:

“The degradation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments is an academic or theoretical matter for so many people and often lacks a strong human narrative to draw public outrage….Whereas, just about everybody’s on Facebook. Facebook’s privacy systems affect them directly every day, and they see it. So Americans are furious that Instagram might sell their photos, while shrugging at what the federal government might do with the exact same data.”

Data and policy are not independent. For this reason, policy coursework comprises the third leg of my concentration in data storytelling (with data analysis and design being the first and second). Understanding what organizations do with data is as important as using data to present compelling stories.

What data policy issues would you like to see journalists explore? Describe them in the comments below.

Data, Meet Design

 How does storytelling happen? Someone has an idea, consults a variety of human and electronic sources, sifts through the information he or she has collected, extracts the meaningful parts, and distills them into a narrative. Of course, the process is often much more circuitous than this, but a successful story must cross each of these hurdles.

Data analysis helps journalists find compelling story ideas, identify additional sources to consult, and extract meaning. But how to ensure that readers and viewers grasp that meaning and understand the significance of the work? By paying attention to design.

Half of Americans get their news digitally (through online, mobile, social networking, email, or podcasts), and that number is going to grow. To a data storyteller, that means crafting a narrative for the digital environment and then, for non-online only outlets, adapting it to the print or broadcast product.

All journalists, not just data storytellers, must, as Martin Belam writes, “think reader, not editor.”

  • Attention: Why would a reader be interested in this narrative? rather than, What does my editor want to see?
  • Value: What will the reader hope to learn from this piece? rather than, What does my editor think is important?
  • User Experience: How can the reader dig into this data and uncover more insight? rather than, I’ll hand this database off to the web person to post it on the website.

For data storytellers, this means thinking about the best way to present data, whether a simple spreadsheet or a time-lapsed bubble graph. It means thinking about whether to create a static infographic or an interactive data visualization. (Stay tuned for updates on my experience in the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas’ online course, “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization.”)

The way information is presented significantly impacts the way people use it. If a website doesn’t load quickly, users will click away. If a user has to constantly scroll horizontally on a mobile screen because the text didn’t automatically adjust, the user will click away. Solving these problems takes design and coding savvy; if that sounds like you, check out the looming challenge of responsive design, or creating interfaces that optimize for viewing on any device.

Focusing on design doesn’t mean turning into a graphic designer or a web developer. It simply means thinking intentionally about the tools at hand and selecting the ones that ones best convey your narrative. Good writers write for their audience. Good designers design for their users. Good journalists need to do both.

Design forms the second leg of my concentration in Data Storytelling (data analysis being the first). Through coursework in graphic design, interaction design, and information visualization, I learn how people want to see information.  

What engaging presentations of data have you encountered? Presentations that fell flat? Share them in the comments below.

Coding != Scary

What attracts people to journalism? A love of language? An insatiable curiosity about how the world works? These characteristics drive journalists to pursue stories and captivate an audience using the power of narrative. They also make journalists great candidates to learn coding.

Yes, computer programming, that gibberish-like collection of symbols and phrases that make our computers whir and our Internet function. That coding.

Programming languages resemble human languages in that they operate under a set of rules, or syntax, and they enable us to communicate with another group (in this case machines rather than people). Programming languages focus more on logic than math, and learning to code offers a reminder that there is more than one way to think about things. Learning any new language takes time and practice, but payoffs exist. The sheer glee of writing a few lines of code that actually function mirrors the deep satisfaction of writing a beautiful sentence. I experienced this when I used the len function in Python to write a program that states whether a given text is too long for a Tweet. Yes, this already exists, but it was my code, and it worked.

A more significant payoff to learn even basic coding is the ability to suss out stories from:

“stacks of financial disclosure forms, court records, legislative hearings, officials’ calendars or meeting notes, and regulators’ email messages. …With a suite of reporting tools, a journalist will be able to scan, transcribe, analyze, and visualize the patterns in these documents. Adaptation of algorithms and technology, rolled into free and open source tools, will level the playing field between powerful interests and the public by helping uncover leads and evidence that can trigger investigations by reporters.”

Call it computational journalism, precision journalism, or data journalism, but digging through unstructured data is how the media will undertake its watchdog responsibility. This doesn’t mean journalists need degrees in computer science (though it wouldn’t hurt), but it does mean that journalists should understand the capabilities of software and learn one or two tools they can apply in their daily reporting. John Diedrich did so with databases and won an award.

Journalism education must also incorporate more coding. Not just because doing so can land students jobs, but because, as Mindy McAdams writes:

“To hang in there — to produce data-driven journalism, or design a mobile app, or write a long-form profile story — students need to have both good taste and a desire to master something. … At the root of all this talk about programming, apps, and so on, is the idea of story. But have our students seen the story in the data, in the graphic, in the app?”

Coding and data analysis form one leg of my concentration in Data Storytelling. I don’t intend to become a programmer, but I do want to speak the same language as a coder and understand how to tell a computer to dig in the way I want it to.

What has learning to code helped you accomplish? Share your story in the comments.

You’re a Journalist. Why are you in iSchool?

Good question. I’m in information school (iSchool) because knowing how to interview people and write stories is not enough to succeed as a journalist today.

In earlier eras, mainstream media were the source of facts (re: information). Between the World Wide Web and mobile technology, facts now lie at our fingertips. We don’t need to wait for the morning paper or the nightly news to keep us updated. Facts have become commoditized, but journalists never traded solely in facts. A journalist’s unit of currency is the story, a set of facts that, when taken together, help people make sense out of the world.

Which brings me to data.

Data is everywhere. On its own, one cell from a spreadsheet is useless. But thousands, millions, billions, even trillions of data points taken together produce meaning. Data plus a human to analyze and contextualize it coalesces into knowledge, insight, and conclusions. How can we humans develop these skills? Enter iSchool. Take this list of the 10 things journalists should know coming into 2013. iSchool students build skills, interact with data, manage information, build online communities, design user experiences, build mobile applications, and learn very quickly that change is the norm. That’s more than half the list!

Data, as Ken Doctor writes, enables journalists to go deeper:

“Well-programmed technology can do a lot of journalistic heavy lifting. In part, all the technological innovation simply lets smart journalists ask better questions and get a faster result. It both allows journalists to get questions they know they’d like to answer — and goes a step beyond. Getting at unstructured data opens inquiry to lots of content previously beyond reach. Machine learning, says [Chase] Davis [director of the Center for Investigative Reporting], ‘allows datasets to tell you their stories. You don’t have to be limited by your own experience.’ ”

It also makes business sense to hire a data journalist, as Amy Gahran points out:

Journalists, editors and publishers who make an effort to become data literate may be able to demonstrate a competitive advantage to the communities they serve — and, indirectly, to funders, sponsors or advertisers.

As a student at UMSI, I am creating my own path of study called data storytelling. This includes computer programming and data analysis (to learn how to glean insight from data), graphic and interaction design (to present that insight in a compelling manner), and information policy (to put that insight into context). I also help organize the A2 Data Dive, a service event in which community members and students spend a weekend crunching data for nonprofit organizations.

Join me on this adventure to learn how to interview data and tell its stories. Do you have a thought, idea, or (constructive) criticism to offer? Leave a comment below, send me a tweet, or email me at priyaku [at] umich [dot] edu. Welcome!

(And yes, I treat “data” as singular. As linguist Geoff Nunberg writes:

“Whatever the sticklers say, data isn’t a plural noun like ‘pebbles.’ It’s a mass noun like ‘dust.’)