Five things journalists need to know about data

By Shaamini Yogaretnam

Mack D. Male presents 'Intro to Data' to MediaCamp Edmonton on Feb. 4, 2012 at World Trade Centre Edmonton. Data has multiple uses for journalists and their storytelling.

EDMONTON — Mack D. Male, software developer and social media guy, wants journalists to know and use data. The intersection of technology and journalism is a site for advanced storytelling. Facts and figures can leap off the page (or screen) when journalists understand them and can make them understandable to a larger audience. Here are five things that every journalist should knowing about what data is, its uses and its potential for journalists.

Open data

Open data is data that anyone is free to use and redistribute with the main requirements of attribution and continued sharing. Open data allows journalists to learn from each other, build upon the work of their colleagues, and tailor the information to specific regions and stories. Open data also breeds an increase in accountability and transparency.

“Anybody can make a graph,” Male said. “If you make a data build, it makes it more transparent.”

Unstructured vs. structured data

Knowing the difference between these two types of data will save you time and the stress of trying to make sense of data. Unstructured data is exactly what it sounds like, data that exists in a format without any imposed structure. Structured data has a defined format and can be easily navigated, curated and separated because of this format. Comma-separated values, or CSVs, are a great tool for journalists. Nearly all programs can open a CSV file since it’s basically a text file.

Knowing the trends

If journalists can know, anticipate and learn from the trends, the data tends to simplify itself. The same principles of beat reporting and keeping your ear to the ground still apply. Only now, they are connected to knowing what others have said, the data that they’ve used to support what they’ve said, and what your new set of eyes and stories can take from that data.

“I can combine this with other data sets,” Male said of how individual data sets that highlight different trends can make new stories.

Find and replace

This literally means to ‘Find and Replace’ characters and spaces in your imported data sets to make the data workable for you. On a larger level, it means add to the discussion. Find the data, contribute to it what you can to tell your story, and make that data available for others to do the same. There will be some work that you will inherit and there will be some that you contribute, both are vital to the idea of data journalism. You can download a data set, from the City of Edmonton for instance, and then make the data tell your story. You can add URLs, additional numbers, geographic points, Male said.

Use multiple platforms

Be prepared to use multiple platforms to get your data where you want it to be. Google Docs, Microsoft Excel, and other programs can all read CSV files. These additional platforms will help you to organize and then visualize the data.

“Really quickly, I can take a data set from a public database, add some of my own stuff to it and make a map,” Male said.