Five things we learned from The Times’ Build The News

Build The News - Day 2

Unlike the past few years when Build the News focused on hacky concepts and newsroom tools, last weekend’s event went back to basics— telling a story.

University students, under the guidance of The Times’ journalists, coders, developers and data analysts, set out to build and tell their stories in the most effective ways possible.

Build The News - Day 2

Our City University team (above)’s story “Grub’s up: the future of food” story won, while Cardiff, with an investigative data piece on how government dictates citizens’ love life, was declared runner-up.

Build The News 2016

These are the lessons we learned from the two-day event at The Times’ News Building:

i. Story comes first: Before succumbing to the temptation of fancy tech and visualisations – what’s your story? What’s new and why does it matter?

Build The News 2016

Judges at the event (above) reminded participating student journalists to keep in mind the five Ws and one H questions while telling their stories. Who cares? Why? How?

Journalism, they emphasised, comes first. New technologies only enable us to do it better. Not the reverse.

Build The News 2016

Like other creative arts, build something first – a strong story – then use visualisations and other aesthetic devices to enhance reader experience. Don’t build a decoration— pointless, fancy visualisations.

For instance, in the winning project— Grub’s up: the future of food— we built a case as to why people should eat insects. Using data analysis and visualisations, we established that the world may not be able to feed the projected nine billion-plus mouths by 2050.

Build The News - Day 2

We also showed how insects are a viable source of protein and minerals because they emit less greenhouse gases compared to livestock, and are easy to farm.

ii. How you tell a story matters: It might be with text, video, audio or a chart, but just make sure the reader get the message easily.

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As The Times News Editor Katie Gibbons advises in her post, “be innovative, but not for the sake of it — the simplest, cleanest way of getting your message to your audience is almost always the best”.

Thinking about the medium (print or online), nature of the story, demographic and psychological make-up of the target audience can help you arrive at the best way to tell it.

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iii. Coding and DDJ are essential: Basic knowledge of coding and programming languages such as HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, R and Rubi, it became evident, may replace grammar interview tests for journalists in the near future.

code

During the competition, The Times developers and coders were at hand to help teams because many lacked experienced techies.

The event laid bare the need for journalists to get the hang of web design, content management systems, data scraping and coding.

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In the same vein, the need for journalists to learn how to generate stories hidden in data became an open secret for success. Going forward, we should be able to scrape, analyse, visualise, generate and tell data stories.

iv. Collaborate with coders: Build the News, once again, confirmed the need for writers without technical knowledge to collaborate with developers, coders and programmers in data projects.

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But as we said earlier, there is every need to watch and learn what the techies do, because they may not be there for you all the time. Many media houses in fact don’t hire them, and the onus is on reporters and editors to write code.

v. Innovate, innovate and experiment: While video, text and photos remain the most preferred storytelling methods, experimenting with new forms of journalism is key to going into the future.

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Birmingham City students (above), whose project focused on The Investigatory Powers Bill (Snooper’s Charter), got a honourable mention at the event for their innovative use of bots and virtual reality.

Photos: Matt ‘TK’ Taylor

Megan Lucero interview: ‘all journalism will eventually be data journalism’

Hailing from a tiny Californian town, where the main mode of transport takes the literal measurement of horse power, Megan Lucero is quite the outlier. The energetic 27-year-old  who was remarkably promoted from intern to data editor at The Times and The Sunday Times in just four years  would certainly stand out if you found her in a spreadsheet. At their shimmering Thames-side offices, Lucero talked to Peter Yeung about the importance of open data, the inherent plurality in data teams, and how her paper was the only one to correctly reject the polling data about the UK’s 2015 General Election.

Can you talk about your rise through the ranks at The Times?

I was interning for a week on the foreign desk, and I was just finishing up my MA in International Journalism at City University. It was my first time in a massive newsroom, which is funny to look back on now. Towards the end of that, I started taking a lot more on for the desk, and suggesting a lot more we could be doing digitally. I was very fortunate that at the time Richard Beeston  who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago  was very on board with this and gave me a lot of free reign to do that. But at the end of that, they were cutting researchers and my job came up for the axe. I went up to the editor and deputy editor at the time, James Harding and Keith Blackmore, and I pitched a job to them, which we later called a “story producer”. I invented the job and they said: “Let’s see what you can do”. It was a one-woman show for a year. I taught myself a bit of coding, built some interactives, I started our first Soundcloud account doing podcasts, I was running live-blogs and finding stories online. But another review came up. They asked me to apply as a data journalist, and at the time I didn’t feel qualified by any means. But once I took on the role, I wanted to own what data journalism meant, so I just started teaching myself. I was trying to learn as fast as I possibly could because I saw this as a massive opportunity  the future of journalism. After a while, I basically running the team, so I became data editor.

What role will data journalism play in future newsrooms?

One day data journalism won’t be data journalism  it’s just going to be journalism. This sexy term that everybody throws around will disappear. Every single journalist should and will be digging into all of the digitisation and data around their beat, finding their own exclusives. I think there will always be a specialised team that will need to help with really advanced machine learning, perhaps algorithms that look at modelling, but I really think that data journalism as we know it now won’t exist.

Do you ever need to convince others about the value of data journalism?

I’ve worked pretty hard to make sure that other journalists understand the value of it. We had a front page exclusive out about charities’ expenses recently, and every journalist knew exactly that the story was a combination of a data journalism approach and an investigative approach. Everyone recognises the value of data, but it’s a matter of whether they’d be equipped to do it themselves. Sure, there is a gap with what other journalists can currently do, but they still recognise that data is important and valuable.

Does the paywall affect The Times‘ approach to data journalism?

If there was a paywall, or there wasn’t, we would be approaching it as we do. If anything, there’s much more of an argument for what we do at The Times, because our business model is that we produce news worth paying for. You’re trying to give your audience and your reader something exclusive, something they can’t get anywhere else, something that is worth subscriptions. A lot of people are willing to pay to support foreign correspondents around the world, advanced sports coverage, access to premiere clips. And I think that there’s a value in someone who’s looking out for accountability in public interest reporting, by advancing data manipulation and data analysis. I think every journalist should be thinking about how they can tell the full picture, looking at all of the information available. If you shut the door on data journalism, or limit yourself on how to access data, you’re really limiting the depth of what your story can tell.

Are there ever clashes between the editorial stances of a paper and what the data says?

I think your question doesn’t even necessarily need to apply to journalism. If you look at academics, if you look at anyone who analyses data, they can tell you that it’s possible to torture a data set to tell you whatever you want it to say. You’ll read one study that says drinking red wine helps you, you’ll read another that says it will kill you. This is because people twist numbers and they will twist it to tell you want they want. But I think we’ve never been pressured to deliver a certain angle, or to intentionally twist the data.The great thing about having a data team is that you’re not relying solely on a single individual  a team requires, for us, a peer review. Each of us check each other’s processes, we really do make a moral and ethical decision whenever we’re looking at it. We try to be open and challenge each other if we find ourselves if we going down a certain angle, or not doing something as robust as it should be. The classic example is how we treated the 2015 General Election  we rejected the polling data that was in front of us  no other paper did that. It wasn’t robust, the margins were too wide, the data was skewed. That couldn’t have happened if it was just individual people going after a story.

What is more valuable, open data or freedom of information?

If there was truly open data, you wouldn’t need FOIs. If truly every government body and every organisation that is public, opened their data, you wouldn’t need to do that to begin with. The fact that FOI is under threat is a travesty, and it’s absolutely unacceptable, because this is an affront to a public service. This is a right being taken away from citizens. But if you look at the source of the problem, it is that the data isn’t open. It’s the fact that public information should be easily accessible and it should be able to be accessed. My argument would be that open data is more important, because it is the bigger picture that encompasses FOI issues. But, of course, I wouldn’t say that FOI doesn’t matter  it matters a lot. It was created because of the lack of transparency and the lack of openness. But hopefully we can get to a space where that won’t really be necessary.

Is it difficult working for both The Times and The Sunday Times, which are competing papers?

We’re the only editorial team that does this. There’s no one else who has a data team that works across two titles. It’s kind of like contracting, in that sense, but it doesn’t feel like that here, it definitely feels like two separate titles. We’re quite lucky that there’s very different focusses on what we do for each title  what we can bring to them. But at times, there’s obviously data that both titles will want, and it would be quite silly to replicate our work. But I think we’ve been finding a good balance in how we share that. Luckily, the way that data journalism works across the board is that it’s quite an open space and an open community  The Guardian, The FT  I know the editorial teams across the board here. Most of all try to open up our data. If I did something for The Times, it would be quite natural for us to open up our FOI requests and the data on that story. That’s what is quite unique about the data community. But it is challenging.

What do you want The Times data team be known for?

I’d love to expand my team even more as I get more resources, and as that’s allocated to us. Basically: I want our team to continually be breaking really great stories, and we want to be doing it in a way in which you couldn’t be doing without computing. Our team is really is brought in to be an investigative team, and we find our best use is when we are doing advanced algorithms, machine learning, modelling  when we’re handling big data, doing things that a human really couldn’t do without computing. That what I want to be known for. We’re still kind of working in an area in which we’re doing some journalism that other journalists could do, so I’d like it to really move further along that line. Doping is one of the biggest examples, but obviously we’ve done a lot of stuff on charity finances, on footballers’ accounts. I’d like to continue that, and I’d like us to get more into visualisation  our team doesn’t do enough due to resources  and I want to focus on stories. But also I’d like to help contribute to the data community and to this paper about creating those journalists that are empowered to be data journalists themselves.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

19 ways to find great data: tips from leading light Marianne Bouchart

Queen of data Marianne Bouchart shared her top data portals – and a few tricks – at this month’s news:rewired conference.

Bouchart is Communications Director and Data Journalism Awards Manager at the Global Editors’ Network. She founded Hei-Da.org, a not-for-profit specialising in data-driven projects and storytelling – check out their Data Journalism Blog. She also spent three years at Bloomberg as data journalism and graphics editor.

And she’s a former organiser of our favourite London schmoozer, Hacks/ Hackers!

Once you’ve found your data and told your fabulous story, you must enter it for the Data Journalism Awards 2015, urges Bouchart. Submissions open 17th December. And don’t forget who helped you find that data…

  • Dataportals.org is a comprehensive list of open data portals from around the world.
  • Data.gov.uk is the UK government’s portal, releasing open data “to help people understand how government works and how policies are made”, says Bouchart.
  • Data.gov is the US counterpart to Data.gov.uk. Note a similar government-run open portal exists in many other countries, too.
  • Open Corporates is the largest global open data base of companies. It aims to eventually list a URL for every company in the world.
  • WikiLeaks is still regularly updated and an “exceptional resource”, says Bouchart.
  • The World Bank’s portal releases free and open data about development across the world.
  • GetTheData.org lets you ask other users in their forum where to find data.
  • WhatDoTheyKnow.com aggregates FOI requests and responses, so you can check if the data you want has already been released.
  • Google search results, simply by using the following search operators:
    • Filetype:CSV and filetype:XLS for Excel spreadsheets
    • Filetype:shp for geo data
    • Filetype: MDB, filetype: SQL, filetype:DB for database extracts
    • You can even look for filetype:pdf
    • ‘inurl:downloads filetype:xls
  • Scrape data from an HTML spreadsheet into Google sheets with the formula =importHTML(“”,”table”,N)

Now clean your data!

Learn how to use Open Refine (formerly Google Refine) with this 7 minute tutorial from datadrivenjournalism.net.

Still unsure how to find a story from your new, clean dataset? From Idea to Story: Planning the Data Journalism Story will inspire you, says Bouchart.

Good luck – and see you at the Data Journalism Awards 2015!

PHOTO: Marianne Bouchart

Interview with data visualiser Ri Liu

Ri Liu, data visualiser at Pitch Interactive. Photo credit: Ri Liu

Good design is key when trying to tell stories in an interactive or visual way.

I spoke with Ri Liu from Pitch Interactive, an interactive and data visualization studio based in California. The studio is best known for its interactive detailing the victims of every known drone attack in Pakistan.

In her spare time, Ri recently created We Can Do Better, which is a visualisation of gender disparity in engineering teams in the tech industry. I was interested in how a reasonably simple data set could be made much more engaging through the visualisation.

Ri's We Can Do Better visualisation. Click the image for the full interactive version.
Ri’s We Can Do Better visualisation. Click the image for the full interactive version.

What was the inspiration for We Can Do Better?

It’s an ongoing issue in the tech industry and as a female in the industry I just asked myself ‘what can I do?’. It’s frustrating when you see this inequality and imbalance.

This data has actually been around for a little while now but in the form of a spreadsheet. It’s great and a lot of people have added to it, but it’s quite technical and has to be updated by submitting a pull request on GitHub.

So I thought, since I have the design and coding background and I’m in tech, maybe I could bring it to a wider audience.

I want to let people touch this information and engage with it, instead of seeing rows and rows on a spreadsheet.

It’s definitely a lot easier on the eyes.

Yeah. I’m glad it’s been shared a lot, and maybe different people and journalists can now engage with this data more easily than before.

The data in its much less engaging spreadsheet format. Click the image to see the full spreadsheet.
The data in its much less engaging spreadsheet format. Click the image to see the full spreadsheet.

Which tools do you use and how long did you spend on it?

I spent a few weekends on it and the visualisation itself is built using D3.

This project is actually on GitHub, I’ve put a creative commons license on it so anyone can look at the code.

Was it worth putting the the time into?

Definitely. Personally, I just wanted to see this data visualised. I’d seen these numbers but it wasn’t really connecting with it in a meaningful way.

I didn’t expect for it to be tweeted around as much, but that’s been really awesome.

How easy would you say it is for someone to learn to use D3?

It’s definitely not the easiest tool to get started with, but once you do get a grasp of it it’s incredibly powerful. When you want to do something you’re not limited by the code at all, so you’re able to say ‘I want to explore the data this way’ and have the tools to do that.

I hardly ever geek-out over technology, but this is the one exception where I rave about it. Compare it to the other end of the spectrum, like the rudimentary graphs in Excel. They just leave you feeling trapped.

Have you noticed increasing interest in interactivity and visualisation from journalists?

We work a lot with publications and I think they’re realising that we need to present these figures visually and in a more compelling way for them to reach people.

That’s definitely been a shift and I think we’ll see more places engaging with data viz companies and studios, as well as more doing it in-house as well.

I’m also interested in how interactivity is being used to tell non-data stories, the most obvious example being Snowfall.

I’m a very avid web user but the problem is that I don’t read a lot of longform content because I just have so much to read that I don’t absorb a lot of it. A lot of sites are just competing for that attention and working out how to make this digestible for people.

I think it’s great to have more visual imagery and better design and it’s great that a piece like Snowfall got such wide attention. It’s like ‘oh, let’s actually pay attention to the design of these articles instead of just dumping text in front of people’.

I’d like to see what the reader stats were for it.

People spent roughly 12 minutes looking through it.

That’s really good.

Because there’s a lot more time gone in to presenting the content like that, I’d also be interested in what that means for the timeliness of certain articles. That was a good piece because it wasn’t about something current, it was just a story.

But it’s a great way of presenting stories which isn’t just dumping traditional print content onto a screen.

Are the tools getting better for making interactive things more quickly? Could we see more timely articles being made interactive?

I wonder whether it’s even possible to produce a piece like that without putting the effort in and finding the best visuals and other  content.

Obviously there are technical aspects like the parallax and scrolling effects they put in, which could just be bundled into tools. But I think that the real beauty of it is in the thoughtfulness, and I’m not sure you could match it without effort and time.

Should we expect more personal projects from you?

I’m always playing around with new technologies. I’ve been meaning to do something with semantic analysis and playing around with words to see biases and other insights.

I’m interested in making people aware of what they’re subconsciously doing and the assumptions they’re making. We’ve got a lot of traces of that on the internet these days, on Twitter, blogs and all these social networks, so it would be cool to do something with it.

That’s just in the back of my mind though. I’m playing around with it but nothing concrete so far.