The Cambrian Age of Journalism

The great challenge now is how to democratise the data processing, so that we as citizens understand the potential of “Big Data” and using it for our interests.

Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper, 1942.

Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper, 1942. Source: Wikipedia.

When blogger Nate Silver predicted before the last American elections that Obama had a 90.9% chance of defeating the ex-governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, he came under fire from the country’s leading newspapers. The young statistician, then aged 32, and with no weight at all in the political sphere, maintained his forecast throughout the entire electoral cycle of 2012 and ended up getting it right in each of the 50 states. So how did he manage it? Simple: he spent his time studying the data. He gathered basic information on the voters, such as origin, gender, and labour situation and created an algorithm that allowed him to demonstrate his prediction. After it was confirmed that he was right, he was hired by The New York Times. Today he directs his own media outlet, Fivethirtyeight, specialising in data journalism.

During the coming decade, we are going to be up to our necks in data. We are living in a digital world where any event, now more than ever, is described with numbers. On a large scale, we can think about social, political, and economic changes or urban transformations. We can think about hunger, poverty, or wealth among the world population. Or on a smaller scale, about the unemployment rate, frauds committed by governing officials, the coffee that a family consumes or the steps you take every day.

Whether we like it or not, data are here and they are here to stay. Faced with this scenario, the best response is to start unmasking them, analysing them, and extracting the juice necessary to understand our environment and act in consequence.

2nd Data Journalism and Open Data Conference (#JPD14)

Journalist Nicola Hughes of the British daily The Times, says that we are in the “Cambrian age” of journalism. “Comparing things with the Earth’s evolution, we are in an explosive age with projects and opportunities for experimenting, characterised by the use of statistics, programming code, data, visualisations, and new narratives. It will be followed by a period when we will all be competing, and, finally, an era of extinctions. Only the fittest will survive”.

Hughes changed the word for code. In 2011, she left CNN to learn programming at the start-up ScraperWiki. “My parents didn’t understand what I was doing, but time has proved me right”. “Dataminer”, as she is known online, was one of the Knight Mozilla Open News fellows and landed at the Interactives department of The Guardian, where she experimented with an incipient European data journalism. She spent a period at the Centre for Investigative Journalism and now there’s no stopping her.

“Dataminer” also forms part of the team at Chicas poderosas, an organisation that tours the newsrooms of Latin America to empower women journalists with technology. It is led by data designer, Mariana Santos. She is currently working for Knight International Journalism in Costa Rica as an Interactive Visual Storyteller. “The name Chicas Poderosas sounds female, but it’s not exclusionary. We teach code, scraping (extracting data from websites), data analysis and visualisation”.

Like Nicola Hughes, Santos also spent time at the Interactives Department of The Guardian, just when they had the “Wikileaks” case on their hands. “It was there that I learned everything I know and now I feel obliged to pass that knowledge on to other professional colleagues”. Begun last year as an experimental project, “Chicas Poderosas” has now toured Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela and Costa Rica. “The political situation in some countries in Latin America makes the task of informing people somewhat difficult and complicated. Many journalists are persecuted, censored, tortured, or killed. If they have the capacity to explain what is happening, with visual narratives and data, then they gain power”, Santos adds.

Web of the project Offshore Leaks.

Web of the project Offshore Leaks. Source: ICIJ.

Mar Cabra, investigative and data journalist, has followed a similar development to that of Hughes and Santos. Some years ago she had the opportunity of a Fullbright Fellowship in the United States and there she came into contact with data journalism. Since 2011 she has worked for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as Data Research Manager, immersed in 2.5 million leaked documents that the ICIJ received on tax havens: Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Global Offshore Money. During a year and a half, 86 journalists from 46 countries devoted their time to analysing 130 thousand names, 12 thousand intermediaries and some 22 thousand companies involved in illicit financial transactions.

Another interesting profile to explore is that of programmer and activist hacker Gabriela Rodríguez, who currently forms part of the international team at Knight-Mozilla Fellows, a group of information technologists and engineers who for 10 months embed themselves in news teams around the world to revolutionise the way stories are told. “As a programmer it’s a treat to work with journalists because new ideas emerge that never occurred to us as developers”. Rodríguez is also co-founder of the non-profit organisations Data, which works with open data and in favour of information transparency in Latin America. “Data Journalism is experiencing a boom because there are journalists who have become programmers; they have been courageous enough to cross the boundary of the technological unknown”.

Nicola Hughes, Mariana Santos, Mar Cabra and Gabriela Martínez will be some of the key speakers at the 2nd Data Journalism and Open Data Conference which will be held in Barcelona and Madrid, from 24 to 27 April 2014. Following the success of the 2013 events, it is returning this year with a first-class programme. The experts at #JPD14 will explain to us how journalists can work with code, how to create interactive visualisations or how to lead a “revolving door” project to understand in whose hands the power in Span is concentrated.

The Centre de Cultura Contemporània will host, on Friday 25 April, an entire day of conference lectures, debates, and round tables devoted to exploring work with data. We will also be accompanied by national experts such as the journalists Juan Francisco Caro (Extremadura Data) and Jesús Escudero (El Confidencial); and programmers David Cabo (“Quién Manda”) and Óscar Marín (Outliers), among many others.

The Data+Moritz Meet-up will be the ideal time for us to mingle, present local data journalism projects while enjoying a beer, and project new ideas.

If last year’s event was an introduction to this new journalism discipline, this year we will be taking a step forward with a “hands-on” approach to data. During the whole weekend, the Blanquerna School of Communication will be the scenario for learning how to use digital tools that enable us to visualise data, convert them, and programme code to get the most out of it.

#JPD14 – organised by the Spanish group of the Open Knowledge Foundation – aspires to become an annual event of reference, like those already taking place in other European cities.

A new revolution is coming!

We have always been surrounded by data but now technology lends us a helping hand to make it easier to understand the world of numbers, still opaque for many people.

According to philosopher Pierre Levy, the Internet has increased collective human intelligence because now it is permanently connected, valued and regenerated in real time. This “cyberspace anthropologist”– a pioneer in the study of the implications of the Internet in the cultural and social sphere – uses algorithms to study how this global intelligence is growing. “The big data available on the Internet is currently analysed, transformed and exploited by big governments, big scientific laboratories and big corporations”, explains Piérre Levy. The great challenge now is how to democratise this data processing, so that we as citizens are capable of understanding the potential of “Big Data” and using it for our own interests.

1st Data Journalism and Open Data Conference, 2013.

1st Data Journalism and Open Data Conference, 2013. Source: CCCB.

“Understanding data is going to form part of digital literacy learning in coming years”, says activist hacker Gabriela Rodríguez. “As soon as we as citizens know how to read code and data we will be able, at last, to take our own decisions and demand of governments accountability for their actions”.

With the aim of democratising data processing, from May to October the CCCB is programming “Big Bang Data”, a macro-exhibition that takes an in-depth look at the data explosion in which we are immersed. Fro the viewpoint of the arts, politics, research, innovation and participation, new ground will be explored through debates, workshops, educational programmes and meetings of local communities.

If a couple of years ago labels such as “Big Data”, “Open Data” and “Small Data” sounded like Chinese to us, today they have started to sound like technology. In the future, we will be floating among a sea of numbers and will feel like fish in water with this terminology.

And if you’re not convinced… just give it time.

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The Cambrian Age of Journalism