Highlights from the 2016 Data Journalism UK Conference

This story was also published at journalism.co.uk.

Data journalism enthusiasts gathered from around the country at BBC Birmingham on Tuesday for the first ever Data Journalism UK conference, a packed day of keynote speakers, smaller breakout sessions and practical workshops on “finding stories in structured information”.


The event was hosted and organised by Paul Bradshaw, lecturer at Birmingham City University and founder of the Online Journalism Blog. For those who might be kicking themselves for missing out, here’s a few highlights from the day’s speakers.

Display data that’s personal and useful

Claire Miller, data journalist at Trinity Mirror, emphasised the importance of peronalising data for readers in her keynote address.

“The big thing with data is, we have to find how to make it interesting to people’s lives,” she said.

Numbers that explain new tax rates or recent building legislation are nearly always interesting. But if you don’t tell people how it might affect them, most readers won’t see why it is important.

“The idea of making news personal is something we can do so much better now with online news. People really, really like talking about themselves. And giving them an opportunity to talk about themselves will turn them towards news.”

Another recurring theme throughout the conference was producing data stories that were useful as well as personal. And this means that the useful way of telling a story may not always be the prettiest way.

An interactive map with different colors showing varying levels of poverty is an appealing way to tell the story of deprivation. But a more personal way of telling the same story might be turning that data into a widget and allowing the user to enter a post code to see what the numbers say about their exact area.

Maps can only tell so much

On the subject of maps, Miller had some hard truth to speak to map-loving data visualisers:

“Sometimes telling the story with words is more useful.”

At Trinity Mirror, Miller has run into problems with maps adjusting for mobile. Due to the small size of the screen, the regions of a map become hard to see and zooming is an awkward user experience.

Another limitation of visualizing geographic data on a map is the limitation on how much it communicates. If the data is on a singular issue like poverty rates or GCSE scores, sometimes a chloropleth will work great. But as soon as a map requires hovering or an input from the user, mobile readers are put at a disadvantage. Much like websites, data visualisations should be created with the mobile user first in mind.

Other speakers like Phillip Nye from the Education Data Lab pointed out that sometime stories are better told as dashboards rather than a traditional article with an embedded map or chart.

Working with semi-open data

The concept of open data appeared in nearly every talk, with multiple breakout sessions specialising in the locating, cleaning and distributing of data. The general consensus was that the age of open data has arrived, but it could be much better. Too many governments, businesses and NGOs are still issuing data in annoying formats like PDFs, which require a fair bit of scraping and cleaning to extract.

Stuart Harrison of the Open Data Institute recommended that data journalists look for sources on open data sites like Octopub and WikiData for interesting sources. Journalists can also be part of the contribution to open data by publishing their cleaned spreadsheets on Octopub for others to use.

Others talked about how data scraping and computer programming can provide open data without asking so nicely. William Perrin, founder of media network Talk About Local, previewed how his new Local News Engine can open up difficult to process data from governments to small, local outlets. Funded by Google’s Digital News Initiative, the searchable database allows local newspapers to cross-reference a search of someone’s name appearing in the paper with how many times it appears in court records.


Where do we go from here?

Multiple speakers discussed the rise of data journalism and its current state in the industry. Stories like the Panama Papers and MP Expense Reports have displayed the impressive potential of finding stories in datasets, and then explaining those numbers to a curious audience.

But not all speakers were entirely convinced that data journalism has emerged as a widely accepted skill in the newsroom. Mark Ellison, senior data journalist at BBC Scotland, said he had to pitch his job to the company and persuade them of his usefulness. Even then, he was only started with a six-week contract.

“Being a data journalist in the newsroom I feel like somewhat of a unicorn. People don’t know what to do with me.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many journalists working with data. But three years later, Ellison is still working at the BBC and still breaking stories that other reporters normally wouldn’t find.

Hyperlocal journalism academic Andy Dickinson sees localising datasets as the next necessary step for data journalism. He explained that at it’s current state in national newspapers and websites, the numbers can feel to abstract and impersonal. His most recent project funded by MediaMill explored ways to create a mutually beneficial gateway of open data between local councils and small news organizations.

Claire Miller of Trinity Mirror thinks that working with data should become part of every journalist’s skill-set. In today’s newsroom, she sees data stories falling into four categories: investigative reporting, everyday stories, useful interactive data and data visualisations. The key now is bringing those skills to journalists who aren’t used to handling data.

Interested in data journalism and data vis? Follow me on Twitter and join my running list of data visualisers. 


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