Interview with Peter Yeung

Peter Yeung: Society will gain greater benefit from just having open data.

Fresh from his time as an ‘interhacktive’, the eyes of the data journalism community are already looking towards Peter Yeung at The Times. With several front page exclusives already under his belt, Peter has already caused quite a stir with his innovative work on mental health and the proposed 3rd runway at Heathrow. Dedicated, pioneering and oozing coolness, he spoke to James Somper about data, secrecy and vine.

Why did you choose data journalism?

I didn’t originally start in data journalism. I did some work in culture journalism before actually- visual arts, film and music. Only fairly recently did I start doing data journalism in the last year or so.

Why did you make the transition?

It’s been a growing niche. I studied anthropology before where you can specialise about specialising. Likewise, with data journalism you can cover almost anything. You have a lot freedom even though in some ways it is sort of a specialism to an extent now.

What do you think the difference is between a data journalist and a data analyst who works for a think-tank?

Data journalism works in the classic tenants of journalism in analysing and contextualising and providing information in a context that’s understandable for readers, whatever publication that might be.

How do you think Brexit will impact upon data journalism?

Well, not necessarily in an obvious way. I suppose if you take a broader approach and say it’ll have a negative impact like it may have on the rest of society, data journalism is a community that relies on the sharing of information and an open ethos more generally. If there are more limits on that then it could be pretty tricky. There’s a big Irish data journalism contingent in the UK which could be affected and that’d be a real shame.

As a data journalist, would you say you’re being hindered by the amount of data that the government releases or do you not think it’s a problem?

Like every data journalist, I like the idea of open data and that all data should be collated and collected, as much as possible. Freedom of Information requests are useful. Essentially society will gain greater benefit from just having open data so yes, the government is hindering journalism and society by releasing all data that it collects.

Would you say as a country we are becoming more secretive?

Data literacy and the quality of data output is increasing. I know the ONS recently had quite a scathing self-assessment about the quality of statistics they were putting out. Over the years it has improved quite dramatically and now it’s pretty good quality. With that being said, there are circumstances where it might be a very political thing in terms of which government is incumbent but there is a lot of difficulty in some cases about getting hold of data, whether that be through Freedom of Information requests. Certain government departments are very difficult to release data that should be released publicly. For example the Department for Education have become a lot more stringent on the way that you are able to access the data that they produce and they have also introduced a stipulation a couple of weeks ago that you have to give the government at least 2 days notice that you’ll be publishing data that they’ve released. That’s quite damaging to analytical newspaper journalism. In terms of secrecy, it depends on which angle you want to approach that from, whether it’s in terms of secrecy on the part of users who are now more suspicious about the way there data is being dealt with. There is a much greater awareness with Edward Snowden about the way our data is being used, but actually, news practices use huge amounts of data to check companies like Facebook.

What advice would you have for wannabe data journalists?

There is a lot of negativity about the journalism industry. It’s always been difficult to find your dream job where you could have loads of time to do what you wanted and have a lot of luxury. It’s more about finding your way in and using the spare time that you have to focus on the topics that interest you and what you want to write about. In terms of data journalism jobs, there’s quite a lot.

Finally, why did Vine fail?

I think the main reason it’s been shut down is because of the conflicting situation of Twitter and also how in a way it was also a competitor to Twitter’s ambitions in video. I think if it had continued to go as an independent, individual company, it would still be around. All the tributes that have flooded since it’s closed show how popular it was. It was probably the purchase by Twitter that killed it.

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