Speaking data to power
Meet Pulitzer finalist and Google data journalism whiz Irene Jay Liu
This is part of a Walkley Magazine series introducing you to the many fantastic journalists coming to Storyology, the Walkley Foundation’s Aug. 24–31 festival of media and storytelling in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
Want to understand Chinese politics? Irene Jay Liu has an app that can help. In 2013, while working at Thomson Reuters, Liu led the team that created Connected China, an app that tracks and visualizes social and institutional power structures in China — and which would go on to win multiple awards.
The app (though, it should be noted, it has not been updated since 2014) will tell you that political power in one of the world’s most important economies begins with family. It goes on to explain the influence of “Princelings” and “Golden Sons-in-Law”, with mesmerising animations and family tree-like infographics linking generations of influential politicians and business-owners.
“News, collective knowledge and political intelligence were captured in articles which had a very short shelf life, but had embedded in them an incredible knowledge of how things worked in China and who the players were,” Liu explains.
“At the time, the understanding of how the political system worked was limited to China watchers and experts,” she says. But the features of the app’s user experience — including its evocative design and animation — make for an entertaining and fascinating way for far more people to learn about the machinations of Chinese politics.
Today Liu, who is speaking at Storyology this year, leads Google News Lab in the Asia-Pacific region. Meet Irene and learn more about how Google works with the news industry and high-tech news projects at Storyology. You can book your tickets here.
She got her start — after seven years studying political science and journalism at Yale and Columbia — as a political reporter for Times Union, a local paper based in Albany, New York. There, she was lead blogger for the paper’s politics blog, which quickly became the most-read on the site. In 2010 she left the US for Hong Kong to start a job at the South China Morning Post (she speaks Mandarin and Spanish as well as English), and a year later she moved to Reuters.
Last year, on a tip from a family friend, Liu initiated an investigation into the illicit methods used by foreign students when applying for US colleges. The resulting series, Cheat Sheet, is a stunning expose of the ways that college admissions and standardized testing have been corrupted. In 2017, the story became a Pulitzer finalist in the national reporting category.
In the meantime, Liu left Reuters for Google and became the Asia-Pacific News Lab Lead earlier this year. Google News Lab works with newsrooms, helping them to use technology in their reporting and storytelling.
Liu’s job is to provide training and develop partnerships for newsroom innovation. Over the course of her career, as a working journalist, educator and now in her role at Google, Liu has trained thousands of journalists across Asia-Pacific, from Nepal to New Zealand and in between. At Storyology she’ll be giving an address to teach skills and spark ideas about trust and verification, data journalism, and immersive and inclusive storytelling.
Says Liu: “All of the latest trends in journalism — data, 360 video, virtual reality and otherwise — are the natural extension of the pencil, the typewriter, the camera and the computer. They are merely tools that serve the journalistic endeavour: to hold those in power to account, to take us to places and perspectives outside of ourselves, to inform.”