Billy Ehrenberg on data journalism’s future and the skills you need

I caught up with ex-Interhacktive and data journalist Billy Ehrenberg to ask him about data, its future and the skills you need

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Billy Ehrenberg, ex-Interhacktive and data journalist, has spent the last year working on new data-based projects with City A.M.’s expanding online team.

I caught up with him to ask what his role involves, and what he sees as the future of data journalism.

In his average day, he admitted that he doesn’t do as much data as he’d like.

“There is a common misconception that graphs in stories means that it’s data – but I try to get at least one data piece done a day.

“Some of what I do is trying to find a story in the numbers, but often the story is quite obvious or easy to tease out, and I need to use visuals or explanations to make it accessible and interesting. To do this I use a few different tools.”

“Excel, Google Sheets, QGIS, CartoDB, HighCharts, Quartz Chartbuilder, Outwit Hub, Illustrator – each one has their advantages”

Billy has several different favourite data tools depending on the job at hand. For example, he says he usually prefers Excel for cleaning datasets.

“I’ve used Open Refine a bit, and that’s certainly worth getting into. Excel and Google Sheets have a bunch of functions that let you pull data apart and whip it into shape – so how useful Excel is depends mostly on if you’re boring enough to have fiddled with functions for days on end.”

data journalism at city am

“Fake data”

On what he sees as the future of data journalism, Billy reckons that “it will naturally divide between real data and fake data. You see some people who do things like not adjusting historic financial data (even film revenues) for inflation because they are in a rush or just don’t realise they should. That’s a dangerous thing: people can see a graph or chart and think that what it shows is fact, when it’s as easily manipulated or screwed up as words are.”

“That’s a dangerous thing: people can see a graph or chart and think that what it shows is fact, when it’s as easily manipulated or screwed up as words are.”

“I think you’ll get two sets of people: those who do not do a lot else, with big skillsets like coding, stats, cartography and programming, and those who have to rush out faux data for hits.”

The next ‘hot topic’

Billy told me he’s not sure what the next hot topic is, but he think it’ll be related to coding – “maybe it’s a cop out, as it’s nothing new.

“People wonder if it’s worth coding if you’re a journalist, and even if you are a journalist if you code. I’m obviously pro-learning.”
data journalism at city am

Data principles

“It’s really important to try not to mislead people. Graphics are easy to use to manipulate people. The more complex they are, the more likely you are to mess up and the less likely it is anyone will notice, even if it changes something.”

“Visualising ethically is important too: even the colours on a map or the extents of an axis can make a change look hugely dramatic”

“I try to let the data tell the story as much as I can and if I don’t like what it’s saying I won’t change the message.”

When asked what data-related skill he wishes he could master, Billy said: “it’s got to be D3. It’s so difficult that I get a real buzz out of solving something in it, even if it’s taken hours.

“Probably learning JavaScript is the best way to crack that nut. It’s a work in progress.”

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