Sunday, April 28, 2013

Report from Data Journalism Sessions in Perugia, Italy

There has been a lot of talk about data journalism - and how it might help to save investigative journalism. There have been plenty of conferences about it, like this one in Amsterdam a while back.

What is there to learn? - Data-Driven Journalism 2010, Amsterdam from European Journalism Centre on Vimeo.

But my conclusion then was that the tools were far from being ready to be integrated into a newsroom workflow. Some organisations, like New York Times and the Guardian have taken data journalism seriously.  But if you look at the investment even these organisations have made, it is just a handful of people on the workfloor doing this. I believe it is because a lot of data manipulation is still cut and paste and fiddle rather than drag and drop. The software is not yet easy to manipulate so non-techincal writers can see the mean. And data analysts are generally not very good at putting the data into the right context. It may be a brilliant discovery, but if its a line in an Excel sheet the outside world will never know. But things are looking up, even if progress is slow.

This week in Perugia, in Central Italy, there was the annual conference for journalists. It is not as sweet as the annual chocolate festival held in the same place, but from my point of view far more interesting. This year's conference was particularly relevant as journalism in many countries is going through exceedingly tough times - catastrophic collapse in some cases. As business models are difficult to justify, managers tend to concentrate on quantity of stories rather than quality.And yet the audience, I believe, is searching for quality. The fluff is free. The considered analysis is never free.

Executive Summary Please?

I do wish there was an executive summary of the discussions that went on in Perugia over the past few days. I don't need an event report - I'm far more interested in short interviews to understand the current issues and what is being done about it. It turns out the videos of the sessions are actually quite interesting, but they desperately need topping and tailing. You can quite happily skip the first few minutes of most of the videos on the YouTube channel.

Here are my learnings from the various sessions:

  • Lucy Chambers from the Open Knowledge Foundation explains about the which has launched on-line courses to help people understand what is possible. They have developed "data expeditions" putting developers, analysts, and designers together during hackathons. 
  • Aron Pilhofer who is the Interactive news editor at the New York Times looks at how data journalism exposed speeding by law enforcement agencies in the US. It was Pulitzer Prize winning material. The cops were caught when the Sun Sentinel got hold of toll booth records A three-month Sun Sentinel investigation found almost 800 cops from a dozen agencies  driving 90 to 130 mph on US highways. Many weren’t even on duty - they were commuting to and from work in their take-home patrol cars. The extent of the problem uncovered by the newspaper shocked South Florida’s police brass. The evidence came from police SunPass toll records. The Sun Sentinel obtained a year’s worth through a freedom of information request, hit the highways with a GPS device and figured out how fast the cops were driving based on the distance and time it took to go from one toll plaza to the next. Speeding cops can kill. Since 2004, Florida officers exceeding the speed limit have caused at least 320 crashes and 19 deaths. Only one officer went to jail — for 60 days. Aron explains that he runs a data journalism team at the NYT of 18 developer journalists. The social media team is 7 people. And the latest team is the newsroom analytics team to understand how the newspaper can be more effective and impactful as journalists. This is still small compared to the 1100 people in total who work at the NYT. 
  • Dan Sinker director Knight-Mozilla Open News explained that Firefox is soon to launch its own OS as well. 

Interesting to hear about the differences between freedom of data in the US compared to Spain. Mar Cabra explains in the first part of this next video the challenges she faced.

Skip the first five minutes of this next video to understand more about using Excel spreadsheets to discover storiees. Interesting tutorial for beginners.

Some of the most successful collaborative investigation platforms and projects in Europe and Asia - from the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, to, Help Me Investigate and OpenSpending. The panelists in the next video focus on how can the different cultures of investigative journalism and hacking be brought together. What techniques and knowledge can developers bring to investigative journalism?

Look out for Friedrich Lindenberg who explains a project called Open Spending. The work done in the UK for Where Did My Money Go has now been repeated in other countries like Moldova. and a useful intervention from James Ball of The Guardian

Sections of the last video I selected are interesting in the discussion about whether Syria is just a civil war. The first section is in Italian but....

Paul Wood from BBC News starts talking in English at 14'53" explaining that the Syrian civil war has been played out almost entirely on YouTube. He has filed several reports as World Affairs Reporter for BBC News. 

He recalls being in Ar Rastan in Syria where he was taken to the front line where a gun battle started. He suspects that it was partly because the foreign journalists had shown up. He recalls seeing a guy firing a heavy machine gun through a hole in a breeze block wall. And there were two colleagues by his side filming this on their mobile phones. 

In war journalism, there is what you see yourself and what others tell you. And the only part you know is true is what you see yourself. He tells the story of meeting several citizen journalists who are spokesmen for the Free Syrian Army and are armed themselves. And the Syrian journalists on both sides of this horrific conflict are each fighting for recognition of their side of the story. And some citizen journalists like Jeddy end up being hated by both sides. He also recalls being stuck outside Houla and realising that Skype interviews were coming out of the city which were more detailed they could do from their vantage point.Towards the end of the session, (1 hr 14 minutes) Paul says he is quite pessimistic - and many of the rebels are now disillusioned that their efforts with Western journalists have not led to any form of intervention.

Ruth Sherlock of The Daily Telegraph explains the dilemma in trying to find people who will speak to you. She built a database of 1000 contacts in Syria. She also explains how backers of various factions want to see YouTube videos showing how their money has been spent. Hence a proliferation of YouTube Videos.

Bryan 29'10 says he doesn't like the way local journalists are just seen as fixers for foreign journalists when in fact many have risked their lives to get stories out. How can we create the trust between locals and the foreigners?

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