Threadneedle Hotel in the City

Leila Haddou, data journalism editor for The Times and The Sunday Times @LeilaHaddou
Aleksandra Wisniewska, visual projects editor at The Financial Times @Alekswis
Sophie Warnes, senior data journalist at the Office of National Statistics and author of a weekly data round up, Fair Warning @SophieWarnes
Taneth Evans, head of audience development at TheTimes and The Sunday Times @TanethAutumn
Caelainn Barr, data projects editor at The Guardian@CaeliannBarr
Chair: Professor Heather Brooke, campaigning journalist and writer, and course leader of the MA Investigative Journalism at City, University of London @newsbrooke

If you are daunted by data, and the technologies needed to interrogate them, don’t be. If you can get to grips with Excel, you are 80 per cent there – and the stories data unearth range from learning where our rubbish goes to uncovering anomalies in the data submitted by employers on the gender pay gap. It was by sifting through a trove of data that the author Caroline Criado-Perez discovered the gender data gap that she describes in her book, Invisible Women.

These were some of the messages that our panel of data experts gave a packed house at the fabulous Threadneedles Hotel in the City, our very generous hostson Monday 25 March for the seminar on data journalism.

Data journalism, the speakers said, involved ferreting out or creating datasets, anything from figures held by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to public spending and then structuring, cleaning and analysing the data to find stories. Data should be viewed as a “super source”, they said, which knows everything about a particular subject and which you “interview”. By combining it with more traditional reporting – interviews with case histories and experts – journalists can tell more complete stories, which keep narrative and humans at their heart.

Sometimes data is grabbed off the web. Aleksandra set out to compare broadband speeds across Britain by using the broadband speeds data set published by Ofcom, which specifies how fast broadband is in every postcode. Producing the graphics to illustrate this involved mapping 1.3m postcodes-worth of figures on to 2.7m building outlines data from Ordnance Survey, the UK’s mapping agency. Other times, data is less easy to get hold of. The FT found national data about their exports of trash for all G7 countries and investigated where it was going. Both projects boasted striking visual presentations.

Taneth uses data to enhance audience engagement – the difference being her audience, which is the newsroom. That could range from a reporter wondering if they’re hitting the right audience to the marketing teams trying to grow the subscriber base to the editor, who might want to know if the content mix is right for the audience, said Taneth.

“Before, the only feedback we had on our journalism was circulation, letters to the editor and the odd reader focus-group. Now we have access to exactly who is reading what, for how long and which actions they’re taking as a result.  And that’s why this data is exciting. It’s allowed us to think about our output and shape our journalism for the digital age.” 

And the tools needed to be a data journalist? Sophie said her team tended to use Excel for analysis and she uses R, another software tool for analysing data. The data visualisation team use D3, an open source JavaScript library to create visualisations and interactives. At the FT, they use R and Python – another popular tool –  for data analysis and D3 for data visualisation. All said that if you know how to use Excel, “you are 80 per cent there”.

Leila urged those new to data journalism to start at the beginning. “Get comfortable with spreadsheets and make pivot tables your best friend. They are one of Excel’s tools that allow you to summarise a large amount of data – We hear a lot about programming in the industry but for most reporters, Excel or Google sheets will be all they really need. We’re journalists, not developers! Everything is about the story.” If you want to learn more, consider taking a course. and the NUJ both run courses.

Will data journalism take over traditional journalism? The panel thought not, but more journalists would become more data-literate, as Aleks said. “We live in the time where we collect unprecedented amounts of data about the world. Increasingly the data takes a structured form so working with and understanding structured data will become core to being able to talk about the world.”

Ultimately, they said, data journalism is just journalism, as Leila explained. “Understanding how to interpret data, make the most of public records and convey this information succinctly to our audiences is key to fulfilling our watchdog function as reporters.”