The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Simon Rogers, data editor at Google News Lab, a Google initiative to promote innovation in journalism. Rogers discussed what it means to be a data journalist, as well as the value of data visualization in journalism.
Joshua New: You had a long career in journalism before becoming a “data journalist.” How has the profession of journalism changed with the advent of big data? What makes data journalism different than traditional journalism other than, say, including interesting visualizations in articles?
Simon Rogers: It’s a subtle revolution. Data has always been there in journalism, from the sports pages to the stock market reports. Yet a lot of reporters were able to say that they could ignore math or numbers because we didn’t have widespread access to the tools needed to analyse them. Those days are truly gone: being familiar with data is a part of being a reporter now. It’s not, of course, the only part. The best data journalism takes the essential skills of being a reporter (storytelling, persistence, and accuracy) and complements them with the data that backs up that story. For instance, a colour piece on a war zone may be compelling, but it becomes even more so when it’s backed up with hard data and facts. We just need to treat those numerical sources with the same rigour with which we treat human sources.
New: Data visualizations like Google Trends can be incredibly useful. Can you describe some interesting things you learned from the Google Trends project?
Rogers: It’s like staring into the world’s brain. We’ve only had access to real-time Trends data for the past two years, and that period has covered the most turbulent U.S. election in modern history. And in that period, we’ve had access to an incredible data source that lets us see what people actually care about, when they care about it. It takes you well beyond the echo chamber of social media to see how the world thinks.
New: Google News Lab’s data visualization project has recruited artists and designers for some interesting projects. Other than aesthetics, can you describe the value of taking a more artistic approach to data journalism?
Rogers: Newsrooms are already revolutionizing how we think visually about the news. At the same time, there’s not a lot of slack time for most news designers. We wondered what would happen if we worked with some great designers and open-sourced their work to benefit the industry and help inspire journalists with the power of Google data at the same time—if we gave them space to dream and develop new ways of looking at the world. That’s where the project comes from, the desire to help everyone create beautiful work. Coincidentally, this is also why we’re supporting Flourish for newsrooms: we want anyone to be able to use a visual to tell a story in new and exciting ways.
New: Can you explain what Flourish does? Why did Google News Leb decide to make it free?
Rogers: Many data visualizations can never be re-used without hardcore coding. Flourish just makes that process easier. The developers can upload their code onto Flourish and then users can change the data, alter the headings or whatever they need to do. It’s one more step toward non-coders being able to produce great visuals. We thought that was a great thing for newsrooms and really wanted to make access to it easier.
New: Google News lab is working on a new edition of The Data Journalism Handbook. Can you describe the handbook and the kind of updates you want to make?
Rogers: 2011 is a long way away now and in the time since, The Data Journalism Handbook has become an incredibly useful resource for students and practitioners alike. But it reflects the data journalism world of 2011, so we wanted to make sure it includes the ways that data journalism has changed since then. We’re working with the European Journalism Centre plus two of the original editors, Jonathan Gray and Liliana Bounegru, to make sure it has the same feel but newer content.