In March 2018, Visualizing Impact and Visualizing Palestine held a workshop on data journalism in Ramallah, covering its uses and ethics, collection and analysing data, and the visual storytelling of this data.
Data journalism refers to the extraction of a journalistic report from important data, and then presenting it in a visual manner to attract public attention by creating infographics or interactive maps. If data is visualised well, it becomes impossible to ignore or forget.
Lylla Younes, a data journalism specialist at New York Public Radio, moderated the workshop and presented many examples of important reports on human rights abuses in the United States and around the world where data were visualised to capture the scale of those abuses. Examples included a report in the Washington Post on the US courts’ computer systems that were used to classify suspects according to their risk to society or the possibility of committing more crimes. The report featured an infographic showing that these computer systems were highly biased against non-white suspects. The visual presentation of such data was necessary to highlight the magnitude of the problem. Another report, published in The Independent, discussed secret American prisons, drone bases and surveillance stations that constantly orbit the Earth. The data was presented in a photo album by the American geologist and artist Trevor Paglen, who photographed these sites with the help of a group of amateur astronomers who tracked the satellites and drones to locate secret sites the United States does not want us to know about.
How can we produce data journalism? What skills are required?
According to Lylla Younes, traditional interviews and press releases still form the bulk of the work required in data journalism, but then comes the stage of collecting, processing and analysing the data, and finally the visualising stage.
Therefore, the journalist should have a good knowledge of mathematics and statistics, be familiar with economic concepts such as financial regression and recession, have experience in filtering large amounts of data and drawing conclusions from them, be familiar with the different methods of visualising data and also with ways to secure one’s data to prevent hacking attempts.
Important tools for data journalism
There are many online tools that can help to filter data. For example, the following websites help organize data to make it readable and easier to analyse:
- Beautiful Soup Library
- API Twitter helps to search for old tweets;
- PDF extractor can be used to extract data from large PDF files and save in smaller files.
Secondly, after filtering the data, the data journalist needs to edit the content. The website Sublime offers a tool to navigate through codes and symbols.
Thirdly, the following tools can help to envision and understand the data:
Lastly, the following tools can help to organise one’s data:
Storytelling through infographics
Creating infographics (or visual data) is the next stage, in which the data and information are transformed into photos and/or visuals so they become easier to understand. Jessica Anderson, one of the workshop organizers and a Visualizing Impact co-founder, recommended two books for those interested in the transformation of dry ideas or data into moving reports: The Tipping Point and Made to Stick.
What are the things we should take into consideration when telling a story through data?
When we tell a story using infographics, we need to define the following issues:
- What is our topic? We should be able to describe our topic in one sentence.
- The audience: who is the reader we wish to impact? Can we define their age, nationality, occupation or common interests?
- The target: can we identify the reasons behind making this report and the nature of the impact we hope to achieve? Do we aim to influence or educate? Can we connect this topic with an important event? For instance, what is the goal of the infographics that discuss the consequences of the hunger strike on Khader Adnan’s health, the Palestinian prisoner who went on hunger strike for over two months to protest his detention without trial?
- The format: what will be the final format of our topic? How do we expect it to be used? For instance, do we need the infographics to be included in a written press report? As a photo album? Or as a video to publish on social media?
- The hierarchy of the data: what is the sequence of the data that the infographics will include and how will they be distributed visually? A good example would be these infographics about the most prominent media influencers on Egyptian public opinion. Note the amount of information about the talk shows’ viewing rates, the voter turnout in the 2014 presidential elections and 2015 parliamentary elections, and the names of media figures and their positions regarding state and government affairs.