Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Data Journalism Handbook By Jonathan Gray, Lucy Chambers, Liliana Bounegru

2012 may well be the year of open news, claims Alastair Dant, of The Guardian. Well yes. Actually news itself has been open for some time now, it is more a question of news and the press.

As a UK ex-pat and ex-newspaper reader I have been watching the News International and Leveson inquiry unfold over Twitter and wondering: why? Few of us read these papers anymore anyway? So I did two things:

  • I flew to the UK to purchase my very own printed newspaper (  the Times )
  • I took up O’Reilly’s offer to review a pre-publication copy of ‘The Data Journalism Handbook’ by Jonathan Gray, Liliana Bounegru, and Lucy Chambers, in exchange for a free copy ( the eBook format, naturally)

On the print side, I am happy to report the Times has hardly changed over the years. Same columnists, same demographic, I imagine all cosily growing old together for as long as the shrinking circulation will support the model.

On the data journalism side, I am happy to report a more youthful approach. This book is full of ideas, initiatives, and enthusiasm.

To an IT professional or a seasoned web worker, some of the journalists’ efforts are hugely amateur. The struggles of picking data out by scraping unstructured web pages remind me of the 1990s before we decided we needed xml and all that followed. The problem of authorities claiming to release data but then using the pdf format comes up time and time again.

But these journalists are honest and they face a responsibility: who will curate the news, who will distribute, verify and interpret the news, who will ultimately safeguard information and therefore freedom in the digital age?

The idea for the ‘Handbook’ came out of a 48 hour workshop at MozFest 2011 in London. The contributors list includes people from such well-known organisations in the field as

  • Open Knowledge Foundation
  • Creative Commons
  • BBC
  • The UK Guardian
  • and even my own local news curator here in the Netherlands, nu.nl.

The story is really of how the profession of Journalism went digital: the opportunities, the challenges, the dead-ends, the false-starts, and above all the unfolding future.

For a journalist, data journalism is the way forward: on all fronts the internet has killed their traditional business, but in this one way they can use their traditional skills to add value and stay relevant to the rest of us.

For a data worker, ie an IT professional, data journalism is the field of techniques to communicate the information within data: ranging from visual tricks through statistical analysis through to understanding accuracy, immediacy and provenance.

In other words, the book is about turning data into meaning.

There are some great stories in the ‘Data Journalism Handbook’. Some to whet your appetite:

  • How Florence Nightingale used infographics to key effect in transforming healthcare
  • The analysis of wikileaks data from USA overseas wars
  • The early (2007) effort of publishing government financial data as COINS (Combined Online Information System)

Journalists, read this book to keep you in touch with what your peers are doing and how they have achieved it, even down to listing working environments, personality and skills profiles, methodologies, tools, languages and data sources that have worked for other people.

Government workers, read this book and stop using pdf!

Programmers, read this book and release the pdf structures

Web publishers, read this book and release more data.  Duncan Geere, of wired.co.uk, quoted in the book:

‘The most important thing you can do with your data is share it as widely and openly as possible.’

The Information Diet, by Clay A. Johnson

The Information Diet. By Clay A. Johnson
A Case for Conscious Consumption
By Clay A. Johnson
Publisher: O’Reilly Media
Released: December 2011

Perfect timing, to publish this book for 2012. like many people I know, I reckoned I had my web news diet down to a fine art. I follow people I know, trust and agree with, and then just read the news they alert me to. Sorted. But then a recent trip to the wilds of Scotland, outside the reach of the web, caused me to a) buy a printed newspaper and b) introspect for a few hours away from the net. In my mind I crystalised the thought that has been nagging me for a while: the news I read is the news I like. I am missing the challenge of different mindsets, the provocation of opposing views, and the mind expansion that comes from reading content I had not explicitly sought, as happens with printed newspapers.
Clay Johnson tackles these issues by drawing the parallel with modern day (specifically American) food consumption and obesity. A novel insight from an information scientist? Or a useful attempt to simplify complex issues by describing them in a way we can all understand?
Clay achieves both, and more. In fact the early part of the book told me more that I expected to learn about modern agriculture and american attitudes to food. But he is in fact from a political background.The insights of this book stem from his experience in a world where information is regularly used to achieve an end, or in circumstances where more than one competing interpretation of the facts is common.
The political discussions in the book yield one or two barnstorming relevations:
  • did you know the term ‘intellectual’ originated as an insult?
  • did you know the Murdoch businesses, and specifically Fox News, actually have a quantifiable formula that explains their superior profit from news compared to their rivals?
The psychological discussions in the book are a little more shaky, with emphasis on selected studies and theories of the ‘the shape of my brain reflects the words that I read’ variety. perhaps selected because they provide the instant gratification sought by the foodie. But there again, Johnson is not primarily a psychologist nor an information scientist.
The final parts of the book recommend some favorite news sites ( always a topical risk in a book ) and some strategies for consuming information. One of which is to seek out not just the information you already know. Good advice. My tip to Johnson would be to seek out the writings of Claue Shannon from 1948 onwards, and look at the subsequent ‘Information Theory’ science that emerged. It covers these issues of information and communication quality, entropy, predictability, and potential to surprise in a way that would nicely complement the angles of this book.
Love the open letter section, headed ‘Dear Programmer’.
Three stars; for getting us all thinking about these issues.

Architecting Mobile Solutions for the Enterprise, by Dino Esposito

Cover shotIt is spring 2012.

  • The telecomm companies are offering data plans that have hammered their call and sms revenues
  • Microsoft are open-sourcing many of the development tools that traditionally delivered their licence revenues
  • iTunes and App stores have brought the supply-to-demand balance to the point where nearly every app is free
  • The public in many countries have deserted websites for mobile completely, and none more so than in the developing economies.

The tipping point is reached.

Now we need to revisit all our enterprise solutions, and anyone with a serious corporate or personal investment in legacy architecture frameworks needs to think hard about the future.

Dino Esposito is one of these people ( he comes from a Microsoft .Net background ) and he has written ‘Architecting Mobile Solutions for the Enterprise’ from real-world experience and with an eye on all our futures.

The first 2 parts of the book cover mobile strategy and architecture. Familiar issues for those of us who are already following the path of migrating mature enterprises to mobile. Dino helpfully recognises that readers will be at different places on the path and suggests a few ways to navigate both his book, and the present architecture of the mobile scene.

Then the third and final part of the book moves from general architectural discussions to specific code examples; and here it really shines. Dino has either taught himself or worked with others who can code in all the major platforms. This is really impressive: full of patterns and tips and gotchas that really help you see the challenges you will face with the present fragmented mobile architecture.

Nice work, and truly educational. Covers mainly Apple, Microsoft and Android. Not much on Blackberry RIM or the other minor players, but at the moment those three cover most of the growth in mobile.

It is truely unusual to see .Net, Silverlight, Objective-C, Android SDK, Monotouch, PhoneGap, HTML5, jQuery mobile covered to such a degree in one place.

If you are unaware of how to architect mobile solutions for the enterprise ( perhaps too busy maintaining legacy enterprise solutions? ) then this book is a must-read for you.

If you can work in one platform but uncertain how to cover the others, this book is a must-read for you.

If you think you can port to mobile just by putting an ‘m.’ in front of your web pages, you also need this book.

My favorite mobile interaction pattern from the book: ‘Guess-Dont-Ask’.

My favorite Dino Esposito quote: “You might want to have a line similar to the following on top of all your
JavaScript files: var GLOBALS = GLOBALS || {};”. Poetry.

Read it while it lasts; some of these architectures are looking very fluid and lets all hope that the solutions will have advanced enough for the 2013 edition to cover a more evolved landscape.