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
- 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.’