It’s tool time
Finding the right data tools in a sea of options
I’ve written before about the size of my newsroom. Small is an apt word for it. And while we operate with a very close, collaborative vibe, there is a necessary “every-man-for-himself” undertone.
Because we don’t have a dedicated graphics team, if you want an image or chart to accompany your story, you often have to make it yourself.
With only one reporter who is charged with helping others with data while also producing stories of his own, sometimes you come across datasets that you just have to clean and analyze yourself.
In our endless struggle to turn lemons into lemonade, we at PublicSource have tried to take advantage of our lack of staff and use it as an opportunity to try out new tools, experiment, see what works.
And let me tell you, there are tons of tools out there. So many that the sheer volume can be daunting.
So I’ve put together a short guide for how to approach this glut of data tools.
Tools for small newsrooms: Little to no code required
Everything’s a trade off.
The easier a tool is to use, the less you’ll probably be able to configure its output. Consider how important fine-grain control over your end product is before you start using a tool that might not let you change much.
Document what works.
Every tool has its strengths and weaknesses. Once you try out a tool, document what you like about it, what you don’t like about it, what it’s good for and what it downright fails at. That way, the next time you need a tool for a certain job, you have a quick reference system in place.
At PublicSource, we’ve started collaborating on this tools document.
Ask these important questions:
Will the output of the tool be responsive?
If you’re using a tool to create a data visualization for the web, will the output of the tool create a graphic that a mobile user can easily interact with?
As of October 2014, 64 percent of adults in America own a smartphone. On the PublicSource website, close to 40 percent of our users access our site via a mobile device. And these numbers continue to grow.
If the tool you’re looking into does not produce responsive graphics, ask yourself if you can afford to leave out such a high percentage of viewers.
Is the tool compatible with your system?
No matter how great of a tool you’ve found to help with your data needs, if it won’t work on your computer’s operating system or requires software/hardware that you don’t have or can’t get, you’re going to be out of luck.
How much does the tool cost?
Cost can be a major limitation for many newsrooms. At my small, nonprofit newsroom, free is king. We will occasionally pay for something that we simply cannot live without, but for the most part we look to open-source, free tools to help us get the job done.
Is the tool maintained?
While free and open source is a solid way to go, there are a few things to look out for when choosing such a tool. The main thing is maintenance.
When you pay for a tool, you’re not only paying for the time that went into developing it, you’re also paying to help keep it up-to-date and bug-free. With free tools, be sure to do a bit of research and see if there’s a group of dedicated developers behind the thing.
A good starting point in evaluating whether or not a tool is maintained is checking how much it’s used and written about by other organizations. In-demand tools are extremely likely to have regular maintenance.
Is the tool documented?
Open-source tools generally have great documentation. Beware of tools without much documentation on how to use them or how they were made. Not only does this imply a lack of interest/following for a tool, but it’s also going to leave you high and dry when you come up against a problem and need help.
How easy is it to use and configure?
We already touched on this above, but it needs to be stated again: If you require fine-tuned results, you’re going to be using tools that have a bit more of a learning curve.
Many of the tools put out by the Knight Lab are great because they have a range of usability and configuration. For users with less coding knowledge, their tools work great out of the box. For users with more coding knowledge, there are a great deal more configuration options available.
How much control do you have over your own site?
This point is especially important when choosing data visualization tools for the web. Some tools allow you to upload data and then simply provide you with an embed code that you can paste into your website.
If this is the case, it means that someone other than you is hosting your data and the code used to produce the visualization. In many situations, this setup is fine. However, it does come with some downsides like potentially unreliable uptime (time when the app or data viz is offline because of issues or errors) and changes in the hosting site that may cause your visualization to change or break without notice.
On the flip side, hosting your own data and code might not be something you can do with your website. Make sure to find out what is technically possible for your site before launching into a new tool.
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Finding the right tools for your newsroom may sound intimidating, but remember, it’s a learning process and there are no right answers. To be certain, there are wrong answers, but hopefully following the steps above will help you steer clear.
Alexandra Kanik is the web and interactive developer for PublicSource. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on twitter @act_rational.