Data as a remedy — a list of ideas

As part of the Data as a Remedy post-truth hackathon in Tartu this weekend I thought I’d collect a list of projects I find inspiring and can add context to the discussion on data stories and media innovation/ infrastructure.

This is by no means a comprehensive list! Actually, its not even a ‘best-of’ one. It is simply a compilation to show the spread of approaches used currently and which one way or another relate to the fundamental issues of transparency and fact-driven, reader-friendly storytelling.

Some of the following examples are large scale and groundbreaking however I have tried also to include examples created outside of major newsrooms, as well as small improvements to typical online news publishing that I believe are steps to a good direction.

All links mentioned here, as well as other useful data resources can be found in this hackpad.

From assumptions to reality ( data analysis )

Besides the dedicated fact checking websites (for example stopfake.org, politifact.com), I wanted to show here two very good data driven topic-specific examples.

The first example comes from the ‘You Draw It’ series of the NY Times and it is possibly the most interactive way to challenge the reader’s existing assumptions on data. In this data based interactive, the reader first draws their intuition on the subject and only then is the reality visualised. The You Draw It: What Got Better orWorse During Obama’s Presidency (published in 01/17) is a good example of debunking contemporary assumptions.

Screen from the NYT article, this is the view where the yellow dotted line represents the user input and the blue one represents the real data.

The second example is the result of a Visual Journalism Project in the Libera Università di Bolzano in 2014 called ‘The People’s Republic of Bolzano’ that was awarded with the Data Journalism Award in 2015. The group started to research how in a city with no Chinatown and only a small chinese community, local media and politicians occasionally talk about an ‘invasion’. They ended up challenging the assumptions of the so called Invasion by both gathering and visualising data to explain the real situation. The result is a compelling narrative based on facts and not emotions, though they made sure that the data had a face and was not just dry numbers.

Debunking the myth of an ‘invasion’ by using a data driven approach. Image from the People’s Republic of Bolzano project. (http://www.peoplesrepublicofbolzano.com)

These narratives have both been built and published in a way to clarify or elevate discussion on existing misconceptions. Example of storytelling tools used here are visualisations, multimedia and interactivity to enable user engagement. The visual design and interactivity seems to be quite valuable in these cases because precisely in a time of post-truth, it is often both a battle for engagement (attention) as well as credibility.


Without a roadmap (explorative approach)

The case is often that you get hold of a data dump and do have an initial assumption so as to know where to approach it from.

Here the process is more exploratory, possibly resembling that of a data analyst. Lengthy data-driven investigative pieces use this approach but it does not have to be large scale to be relevant. As an example of smaller yet fact based exploratory report is the ‘Airbnb vs Berlin’ report created by students as part of a course in the Design Faculty of FH Potsdam.

The group simply started with the subject matter in hand: the rise of rental prices in Berlin and the growing local discontent with the online renting services. They then scraped and gathered information from Airbnb and their findings where defined as their analysis was progressing.

Airbnb vs Berlin used network maps to identify the top renters in Airbnb Berlin have multiple flats offers, which might indicate business activity instead of holiday sub-let. Screenshot from http://www.airbnbvsberlin.com

In the final mini-site, they described both their process of analysis and findings with graphics, text narrative and datasets. Their data exploration brought some more hard evidence to the debate and allowed for more evidence based journalism to flourish.


Designing for Evidence (infrastructure examples)

From small changes to complete rethinking of news publishing, there are some new and upcoming ideas in the modern newsrooms.

Though hard, at least one member-funded platform, The Correspondent from Netherlands has managed to be self-sustainable (though mostly in Dutch they translate a few articles in English). In 2013 it came in to a competitive online media environment promising an ad-free and subscription based experience that focuses on the big picture: an ‘antidote to the daily news grind’.

The Correspondent in the desktop version keeps the right area for giving links to primary and additional sources used in the research. Screenshot from an article on https://thecorrespondent.com/.

It is admittedly quite groundbreaking to be able to fund their platform purely on member contributions. However in this context I wanted to highlight their (design) approach to promote transparency.

Each article they publish, has a side column where the where original or extra sources can be placed to allow more transparency of their process to their readers. Moreover, ambiguous or complicated terms are annotated with a red arrow, and show extra information to the reader if clicked.

Giving extra context and explaining terms when needed. Screenshot from an article on https://thecorrespondent.com/.

Rethinking Everything (except the basics)

Many might be aware of news aggregators and bots, but there is a least one platform in USA that is publishing human-written and human-edited news in the form of a chat bot. Quartz, a ‘digitally native news outlet for business people in the new global economy’, has created a chat based app where the reader experiences the news items as a chat conversation in a casual and even personal tone at times.

A gif of an example news ‘conversation’ thought the user can only choose from predefined buttons not free text. Gif from Wired and Quartz.

First time I heard of the idea of a chat bot to which one can ask for the daily headlines and their punchline it seemed wrong. Automation was the first thing that came in mind, but I was surprised to find out that actually each answer was not automated but pre-answered by the very journalist writing it up — all human-edited. The major difference being that the information is actually delivered as a seeming dialogue rather than the typical full page article text.


Showing the Relevant or Everything? (on personalisation)

This is (or at least used to be) a much debated issue. It is still debated of course, but maybe more about its ethics than it’s implementation, especially since personalisation is implemented already in probably the majority of news platforms one way or another.

My examples here are going to be mostly concerning personalisation in the scope of data journalism articles and not in its wider editorial (filter-bubble) context.

Personalisation is a technique used sometimes by data journalists to explain how complicated issues affect individuals. The assumption is that by understanding how something affects you, you can understand the dataset or greater issue at hand better or simply make it more fun :).

Changing the top parameters, changes the highlighted data to make it more relevant to the readers. It is also by default animated. Screenshot from flowingdata.com

Flowing data has really brought this to another level by running visualisation simulations on subjects such as relationships or statistically probable ways to die, (see ‘Relationships: The First Time’) where the reader inputs gender and some more parameters to compare themselves to the averages based on national datasets.

Whether personalisation in data driven stories contributes or not to the bubbling effect I think changes on a case by case basis, but at least the example above shows how personalisation brings seemingly dry data to the reader instead of expecting the opposite.


Of course there are many themes to be discussed in data driven storytelling such as crowdsourcing, open vs gathered data, dataset reliability etc that have not been mentioned. Hopefully though, the above can give a first dive into the various possibilities and inspire even more!

More, more, more!

unfiltered.news (birds-eye view on under represented headline topics by country)

www.gender-balance.org (crowdsourced data & gamification)

www.digitalattackmap.com (map-based real-time DDoS attacks globally)

livingwage.code4sa.org/ (nice example combining traditional journalism first-person story and data)