data driven journalism

After Simon Rogers´ talk, combining equally classical journalism and data expert skills, the day continued with a number of interesting presentations.

Farida Vis talked more about Reading the Riots, a research about the role of rumours during the London riots in 2011: it is also a research about people´s behaviour in social media, a study case about Twitter (which would deserve further investigation, what Farida promised to do in the future). A fundamental contributor to this work was the Italian data journalist Jacopo Ottaviani, working at Il Fatto Quotidiano and The Guardian. Jacopo´s work focuses on sensitive social issues, such as prisoners´conditions of life in both Italy and the UK: the study in Italy shows prisoners´ main causes of death during the last decade, that in UK focuses about the rate of suicides in British prisons. An example of how data journalism may increase social conscience.

Farida Vis at OKFest

The next speaker was Esa Mäkinen, one of Finland´s prominent data journalists, working for the only daily national newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat (by the way the main one in Scandinavia). It´s interesting to note that HS wants to be a pioneer in data journalism, on the model of The Guardian and other much larger international newspapers. HS has been organizing Data Journalism Hackathons [1] in the last two years, with the idea to find people with technological skills, keen to collaborate for their website: journalists, programmers and designers, meet for a day, working at their own project; the best ones get the possbility to be developed and published on HS website. The next HS hackathon (no.6) will takes place today at the OKFestival!

As it was more times pointed out on Tuesday, data journalism is drawing more and more attention among the readers, who are eventually both attracted by the visualizations and the interactive possibilities (choose freely what to look at, at which country, age group and so on). So it is becoming more commercially appetizing for news agencies, while more traditional reporting forms are rapidly disappearing (see art and music reviews!) Mäkinen said that the HS website has about 1.4 million visitors per day, a remarkable number. Finland is a highly technological country, online apps such as the election machine (helping you to find the candidate more near to your views) have been existing since at least 15 years.

Mäkinen´s team next project is an interactive poll about the brand new building of the Helsinki Music Centre, with questions about its aesthetics and functionality, utility/need for citizens and so on. Looking forward to the results!

The Hungarian Júlia Keserű presented K-monitor, an internet portal aiming to detect corruption levels in the press: she reported about a couple of censorship scandals in her country, where journalists were fired for having revealed links between the finance world and first-row politicians (the Prime Minister or his entourage). The portal aims to detect media ownership control and measure advertiser´ influence.

An inspiring talk was that held by Maya Indira Ganesh and Emma Prest, from the Tactical Technology Collective, an NGO founded in 2003, based in both Germany and India, with regional staff in South Africa, the UK, Jordan and the Philippines. The organization aims to give technological support to rights advocates who work about sensitive social issues, such as sex workers´ conditions in Asia. The research, Sex worker voices, illustrates the acts of violence sex workers endure in West Bengal and Cambodia. In such marginalised communities modern devices as cell-phones are the only means to let others know what happens. The data collected include locations, display of the facts in time (how frequent they are and so on), and especially who are the people involved: in most cases police officers were among the offenders, in first place along with madams, and only in minor percentages customers and landladies. Thanks to this programme sex workers became more aware of the scale and nature of the violence within their communities. They found out that some of the data contradicted their own beliefs. The data also revealed how the stigmatisation of sex workers is reflected in the kinds of violence they face.

OKFestival newsroom

The American researcher Lesley Kadish showed that a dataset may also be composed by historical, archive material, such as diaries, account books, photos from the XIX century (A Christmastime Ledger Book, 1862). The video visualization showed the same landscape (Fort Snelling, Dakota) as it was supposed to look through different historical times.

There were also a couple of open geodata presentations, by the Finnish team Ali Kaapro and Tiia Palvimo, and by the Dutch team of Juha van ‘t Zelfde and Maurits de Bruijn: the latter project, Shippr, was started a few months ago and regards the tracking of ships all over the world. A kind of FourSquare for ships, the idea may have economic, social, environmental implications – as 90% of the world trade happens on the seas. Through dynamic data and locations the application may help to understand better the tangible global economy, in its real time changes. Shippr is now looking for partners, e.g. telecommunication companies such as Sonera. Shipspotting may also be important as a form of citizen journalism, a chance to report facts on a free, voluntary basis. As it came out from the numerous questions, the world of ship traffic is anyway not always a transparent one: if on one hand ship are registered and it´s not so easy to change their names, containers may transport anything, their content does not need to be specified, which gives space to illicit trafficking. One question was also: could you track military ships?

Last but not least, Victor Miclovich from Uganda, talked about the use of technology in developing countries: in extreme situations nets of mobile phones are fundamental to detect the most violent, dangerous areas; or help in case of epidemies such as the Ebola fever, which recently killed many people in Africa in a short lapse of time. Applications such as u report – voice matters or rapidFTR, are useful to find children lost in war areas. Miclovich collaborates with various NGOs, UNICEF and so on.

Miclovich conducted also another project of social relevance in Uganda, to encourage girls and young women to use technology and programming. Girl Geek Series is a series of workshops where girls learn to code and design open-source software: in a male-dominated area, they learn also to work in teams, gain self-confidence and hopefully start a business on their own later on. In spite of their families´ opinions, often not so positive, as in many other areas of the world.

[1] Term combining the words hack and marathon


Soon after the day continued with the Topic Stream #10, Data Journalism and Visualization. As every day, other topics are developed elsewhere at the same time, in a particularly rich and multifaceted programme. The subject naturally followed Farida´s introduction, with the well-known case study Reading the Riots on Twitter and the questions it left open:

“Who is and can be a journalist” in the era of Twitter? “Is Twitter open data?”

Data journalism is about “working across boundaries, sharing knowledge and skills, and we only begin to unlock its potential” (Farida Vis)

Simon Rogers, from the Guardian Datastore and Datablog, outlined a short and effective history of open data: as far as 1821, “six years before the introduction of compulsory education in the UK, the Manchester newspaper published the names and addresses of the schools of the town”, a respectably long “tradition of making data available”. This unfortunately “does not automatically makes a society more democratic, as in the case in Saudi Arabia”, where a certain amount of public data are online.

In the best British journalistic tradition “Facts are sacred”, and, as James Cameron said “It was long ago in my life as a simple reporter that I decided that facts must never get in the way of truth“.

What does a data journalist do? And a simple journalist? Both “investigate, research, write and report, engage, reveal and expose“.

Pro arte utili

Data journalism may also produce interesting data, under the form of interactive polls, collecting personal data: Poverty Line was a research conducted by The Guardian, investigating poverty rates in the UK.

Easily available online tools make nowadays journalism possible for everybody.

The last part of Rogers´relation was dedicated to the London Olympics, a challenge for the data journalism team: many infographic were produced, from the Olympics spending map, where one could clearly see where public and private money went, to Alternative medal table interactive, where the reader could choose among many sorting ways, from Team size to Population, to State vs private schools and so on. Many less evident aspects of the event were investigated this way.

“Do what you do best and link to the rest” is Jeff Jarvis’ motto for newsrooms: “to reorient newsrooms from a resource-rich, monopoly distribution approach to reporting, where a newsroom could reasonably aim to do it all themselves, to a resource-constrained, networked media reality, where newsrooms must focus on original reporting that matters most”, often with low costs.

All along the day Twitter provided a second dimension, under the hashtag #okddj. Unfortunately, every time a speaker asked the audience a question, I missed it, attention has its limits – a loss, addressing the audience directly is always a valuable way of keeping the communication alive. On the other hand some tweets clarified or amplified what the person was saying, adding useful information.

In any case here you can read the story of the day in tweets, collected and put online in a few hours´ space.

Welcome onboard, this is going to be an (almost) daily journey to discover what “open” means, in the many senses this magic word can assume.

From the Open Knowledge Foundation webpage, the main organizer with a tenth of other open movements of the first Open Knowledge Festival (Helsinki 17.-22.9., also in streaming/video), it reads that “a work (music, films, books, but also scientific, historical, geographical data) is open if its manner of distribution satisfies certain conditions, among which: free accessibility, redistribution (no copyright restrictions), possibility for anyone to reuse it, open data format, no discrimination against persons or groups, no restriction of endeavour (business, genetic research or any other possible field)”.

Open philosophy and action involve many fields of human activities: information technology makes available huge masses of data, “released by governments, local authorities, agencies, or any combination of them – even across national borders” (Data Driven Journalism).

Open data looks like one more flood of information, as we daily experience in this complex and “liquid” (sorry Bauman again!) world. What can this be of any use to ordinary mortals?

Lists of “budgets, timetables, costs, crimes, births, deaths” and so on, if filtered and compared may be useful to understand ” How much does the army get if you compare it to health services?” (We Love Open Data)

Or simply, if cities open up their public transport data, citizens may easily figure out which is the fastest bus itinerary to a certain place (or the fastest cycling route! As it is the case in Helsinki since this spring).

Open data may also enhance transparency, “shed light on intra-governmental processes, raise awareness, incite discussions about government decisions, and improve the level of public discourse” (Open data in action). Some wonder would such a case as ILVA in Taranto (Corriere 15.8. 2012) have arisen if risk and pollution data had been transparently available? (Ernesto Belisario)

Open data seems to be journalism´s new frontier: not only a possibility to enrich reports with often beautiful statistically based data visualizations, but also bring to the front not generally reported issues, such as Milwaukee´s area child mortality (surprisingly high, the article also investigates why and for what causes, JSOnline Data Journalism Awards candidate). Or show how many journalists have been in Afghanistan in the last two years and in which areas (Violece Against Journalists in Afghanistan). Or show in real time how many Syrian officials, politicians and diplomats have fled abroad up to now (Tracking Syria´s Defections).

Environmental data, such as those collected by ARPA are crucial to build a green consciousness and improve the quality of life. Being free to reuse a shared knowledge is a parallel to recycle a material, what needs to be done more and more if we don´t want to be drowned in waste.

In Open Design sustainability is a central issue. More on this in next posts!

Check out the OKFestival Topic Streams to get an idea of what is happening. Countless subjects may be approached in this way!

Alla scoperta dell´Open Knowledge

Benvenuti a bordo, questo sarà un viaggio quotidiano (o quasi) alla scoperta del mondo open e dei tanti significati che questa parola magica può assumere.

Dalle pagine web della Open Knowledge Foundation (il maggior organizzatore dell´evento di settembre, insieme con una decina di movimenti open) si legge che un´opera (musica, film, libri ma anche dati scientifici, storici o geografici) è open se le sue modalità di diffusione soddisfano certi criteri, tra cui: libero accesso, redistribuzione (senza restrizioni di copyright), possibilità per chiunque di riutilizzarla, formato open data, nessuna discriminazione verso gruppi o persone, nessuna restrizione di utilizzo (dal business alla ricerca genetica, nessun campo escluso).

La filosofia e l´azione open includono molti settori delle attività umane: l´informatica permette di avere accesso a enormi masse di dati, “rilasciati da governi, autorità locali, enti governativi e non – anche oltre i confini nazionali” (Data Driven Journalism).

L´open data ha tutta l´aria di essere un altro fiume di informazioni, che si aggiunge a quello che quotidianamente ci sommerge in questo mondo complesso e “liquido” (Bauman ha colpito ancora!) Di che utilità tutto ciò può essere a noi comuni mortali?

Liste di “bilanci, orari, spese, crimini, nascite, morti” e così via, opportunamente filtrate e messe a confronto tra loro, possono aiutarci a capire “quanto va all´esercito e quanto alla spesa sanitaria” (We Love Open Data). O semplicemente, se una città diffonde i dati dei trasporti pubblici, il comune cittadino può calcolare in un attimo qual è l´itinerario più rapido per raggiungere un certo posto e con quali mezzi pubblici (o persino con che pista ciclabile, com´è possibile fare a Helsinki da qualche mese a questa parte).

L´open data può anche aumentare il grado di trasparenza negli affari pubblici, “far luce sui processi intergovernativi”, aumentare la consapevolezza dei cittadini, stimolare la discussione sulle decisioni dei governi e innalzare il livello del dibattito pubblico” (Open data in action). C`è chi si chiede se un caso come quello dell´ILVA di Taranto (Corriere 15.8. 2012) si sarebbe mai verificato se i dati sui rischi ambientali e l´inquinamento fossero stati resi pubblici fin dall´inizio (Ernesto Belisario).

L´open data pare che sia la nuova frontiera del giornalismo: non solo per la possibilità di completare i reportage con ricche visualizzazioni di dati statistici, spesso esteticamente attraenti, ma soprattutto per l´opportunità di portare all´attenzione generale argomenti spesso trascurati, come ad esempio il tasso di mortalità infantile nel distretto di Milwaukee (sorprendentemente alto, e questo articolo, candidato al Data Journalism Awards ci racconta quanto e per quali cause: JSOnline). Possiamo venire a sapere in tempo reale quanti e quali politici, ufficiali o diplomatici siriani hanno deciso di andarsene all´estero fino a questo momento (Tracking Syria´s Defections).

I dati ambientali, come quelli raccolti dall´ ARPA, possono contribuire a creare una coscienza ambientale e a migliorare la qualità della vita. Poter riutilizzare un materiale intellettuale è un gesto equivalente al riciclo di qualunque altro materiale, un gesto che diventa ogni giorno più indispensabile, se non vogliamo soccombere a una massa di rifiuti. La sostenibilità è al centro dell´ Open Design. Ma per questo vi rimando alle prossime puntate!

Nel frattempo date un´occhiata alla lista di argomenti (Topic Streams)  dell´OKFestival: gli argomenti che si possono avvicinare da questo punto di vista sono davvero tanti!