Data Journalism Calling My Name?

View from Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

The past few weeks, it seems like the universe has been trying to tell me something. Something besides the fact that I needed more sleep and more interviews with nuclear scientists, which was pretty obvious.  No, I believe that the universe is trying to point me into data journalism.  Here’s the evidence:

1. John Keefe, the newly minted “Data News and Technology” chief at WNYC came to talk to my class about using data for both finding and enhancing stories.  He talked about the free online tools, like google fusion tables and map builders that allow even beginners to present data on top of google maps to convey all kinds of information, from political donations across the city to snow-plowed streets. It’s amazing how fast you can build a map with these tools, compared to the complexity of the ArcGIS programs I am used to making maps with. John believes in showing his work, and on his website, johnkeefe.net, he explains how he made some of his coolest maps. 

2. I received an email announcement for a course next semester on Data Visualization.  It’s in the computer science program (eeek!) but the prof assured me that he wants it to be an inter-disciplinary class where journalists and scientists can collaborate with a programer to develop effective means of data presentation that will engage people.  Yep, I registered for it.

3. I finally received the data I requested from the university counseling center after two months of waiting patiently for them to hand over usage numbers, broken down into student subpopulations, average wait times, top presenting problems, and the annual report. Investigative journalism became a lot more fun once I got my hands on the data! Being able to include some of these numbers really enhanced the our story; with specifics, trends, and context. I did not have to do anything fancy with the data, just percentages and change over time, but without it, I believe the story would fall sort of flat.  Anecdotal stories certainly connects readers to a piece, but I think that having the data to back it up actually gives the story an impact.  Hope to see this piece out in december, I will keep you posted.

4. A friend just sent me this awesome data project from xkcd.com. Seriously, go to the website, blow up the chart, and spend some time to check it out.

Posters are available for sale on xkcd.com I want one for Christmas, hint hint

They used more that 200 sources to compare everything from the cost of a rice and beans dinner for 4 to 7 years of Hogwarts education to major military and economic expenditures.  It’s amazing how huge sums of money can be put, a little bit, into perspective by this project. Very very cool.

5. I read David Ropeik’s How Risky Is It Really? for a class project on accurate risk reporting.  First of all, his book is really interesting in how it describes how we misplace our fears and misjudge the risks we face. To use an obvious example, people are afraid of plane crashes, not driving, even though they are much more likely to die in a car crash. Perhaps more importantly, Ropeik talks about how people struggle to interpret data around risk, like the difference between a 1 in 100 or 1 in 1000 chance of something bad happening to you. Apparently, people need more help that I would have expected putting numbers into context, and now, I’m glad I know.  I plan to work harder to present numbers in relevant context so that my readers can interpret them accurately.

6. I just heard last night from a classmate and friend that some people in the department are trying to start a data presentation working group!  So, clearly I’m not the only person receiving these signs from the universe.  But, I’m excited at the prospect of working with other folks to try and tell stories with information. Brainstorming data presentation projects and how to pull them off sounds like a serious journalism challenge, so I hope it really does get started.

Thanks Universe, I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes 🙂 I plan to play with a lot more data in my research and writing next semester.

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