Using data to move beyond news to building tools

There is an abundance of creative ways to use data to tell stories and build tools that will help you cultivate a loyal, engaged audience, said Knight International Journalism Fellow Justin Arenstein at today’s Editors Masterclass on the data revolution, at the World Editors Forum in Bangkok.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | June 2, 2013

In terms of the Internet, we are living in the “age of context,” Arenstein said. The Internet is deep enough and intelligent enough that it can create connections between entities, people, events and processes.

He encouraged the audience to think about turning news into something that is actionable, something that the audience can directly use. He cited Google Now as technology that is doing just this, highlighting that crucially, it disaggregates content and serves the user the information that they need at that moment.

This is part of Google’s preparation for an “immersive future,” Arenstein believes, in which wearable computing will start to lay over the actionable and contextual information over your real life. In the not too distant future, wearable computing will mean that landscapes should start to speak to the wearers, giving them a wealth of information about their surroundings.

For new organisations to be part of this, their articles must be appropriately geo-tagged: this was Arenstein’s first recommendation for workflow change. His second, building off this, was to focus on entity extraction and network analysis, which can identify connections and context, and make hidden information into stories.

Here are several examples of useful data journalism projects launched by news organisations, as described by Arenstein:

  • Top Secret America, by the Washington Post, United States – a searchable database dedicated counter-terrorism related spending.
  • Bloomberg Billionaires Index, by Bloomberg, United States – a searchable database of the world’s richest people.
  • Network of Scandals, by Veja, Brazil – a searchable database of politicians’ connexions and networks among each other.
  • You Have it Worse Than 30 Years Ago, by The Globe and Mail, Canada – interactive tool that maps average tuition costs, housing costs, and loan costs to

Other examples of projects, which cost less than $500 and can be implemented in small newsrooms:

  • StarHealth, by The Star, Kenya – Searchable public register of doctors who’ve been convinced of malpractice, as well as tools to check insurance coverage for a particular treatment and to find the nearest specialist or health facility.
  • GottoVote, Kenya – electoral tool that helps people find registration centers near them to facilitate voting.

StarHealth only required one programmer and four days of work, with the help of two journalists. GottoVote required one programmer and one journalist.

Arenstein recommended hiring contractors rather than fulltime developers, as the landscape evolves so quickly and needs may vary per project. We need to get beyond playing catch-up, he stressed, all platforms are going to evolve fast.

He did insist on the importance of two kinds of staffers in every newsroom:

  • Data wranglers: journalists experienced with statistics to lower the risks of inaccuracy when dealing with numbers
  • Data visualisation staff: must be comfortable working both with numbers and infographics.

“None of these tools replace traditional journalism. They all hopefully help to augment the quality of journalism,” said Arenstein.

“These are tools that people start to use beyond news. They also make people come back to these sites, and this eventually helps to generate revenues,” he added. “People want to read context, but they also want usable news and usable tools.”

By Emma Goodman and Jean-Yves Chainon

For an indepth interview with Justin Arenstein, see our latest Trends in Newsrooms report. The Editors Masterclass was held with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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