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From FOI to ‘data exhaust’ – data journalism explained

The Financial Times’ Martin Stabe gave a fascinating insight into the world of data journalism and interactive news at our Perspectives social and educational event last week.

Martin, head of interactive news at the FT, explained how the 2005 introduction of the Freedom of Information act was a catalyst for a new data-driven approach to interactive storytelling that is more engaging, entertaining and personalised than had previously been possible.

Martin leads a 12-strong team of data journalists, designers and web developers at FT.com. He showed guests at the event examples of their work, including an interactive news application enabling users to compare the success of tennis stars through the ages. Another allowed readers to put themselves in George Osborne’s shoes and decide what steps they would take to reduce the budget deficit. The emphasis in both cases was on giving people a news application to play with that would let them pursue their own angles.

Data exhaust

While the Freedom of Information act was credited with creating an appetite for data journalism, there have been other factors in its growth. Among them is the rather frightening ‘data exhaust’ of information available as a result of our increasingly digital lives – in effect the digital trail we leave behind as we go through our day sharing and interacting with information via the internet. Smartphones have a lot to answer for.

The most read story in the New York Times

For any doubters in the audience, Martin showed just how powerful data journalism and news visualisation has become – using two examples of interactive news coverage that generated massive audiences. Tellingly, the single most read item on the BBC website in 2013 was the Great British Class calculator. A dialect map of the United States remains the most read story ever on the New York Times website. Equally, we were told how supermarket groups and estate agents are using the data at their disposal to provide information to their peers and potential customers.

Responsible and legitimate

But there are challenges in ensuring the responsible and legitimate use of data for journalistic purposes, we were told. Martin was also passionate about the right and wrong use of these techniques – never do data journalism for the sake of it, and beware the carelessly compiled infographic, a major bugbear for the serious data journalist. News applications must tell a story that cannot be told simply using words and one for which data is a major factor.

Raw data

Martin also shared some useful information about high-quality data PR (pictured). It’s also worth noting that the old rules of journalism still apply in this brave new world. The team at the Financial Times expects its sources to be open and transparent in return for fair and accurate reporting of the facts as the data journalists poring over raw sets of data interpret them (yes, they really do prefer data sets to be delivered in their rawest form).

“Nobody who wants to do serious data journalism wants to do anything that doesn’t stand up to proper scrutiny,” Martin said, “It’s all about telling stories in a more precise way than in traditional or conventional journalism.”