If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a good data visualization must be pretty valuable indeed. The Associated Press (AP) certainly thinks that data journalism is worth supporting. And now, having secured a $400,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, they plan to invest in building data sets, analysis and presentation tools, and the development of best practices, which will be included in the AP Style Guide, to support the growth of data journalism.
“We’re dealing with more data, data sets we didn’t have before—a deluge of data,” says AP Editor for Interactive Newsroom Technology Troy Thibodeaux. “There’s a hunger across all news organizations for data but no news organization has enough hands.” This is particularly true when it comes to the heavy lifting required to combine and reconcile disparate data sets and to best present data to consumers.
With the funding, AP will add additional data journalists to its team and increase its distribution of data sets that include localized information to thousands of news organizations. This expansion is intended to lead to more collaborative projects with newsrooms across the country. Thibodeaux noted the increasing need and desire for data and related tools and that the AP is uniquely positioned to help.
“Data journalism is a means to an end. The end is still journalism, storytelling, watchdog journalism, the same sorts of things we’ve always done. But data is the how,” says Thibodeaux. And, given that consumers are flooded with content, data can make a big difference. “In a media climate where people are overwhelmed, they are looking for news stories with a harder edge and data can give stories that edge.” Consumers today are also trying to evaluate which sources are trustworthy and Thibodeaux points out that with greater transparency “by showing our work” we can help build that trust.
In addition to offering a substantive way to support the validity of a story and demonstrate the thought and research process that went into it, data can also be part of the visual component that brings a story to life for readers. Data visualization, as Thibodeaux points out, “has a whiz bang factor, and is immersive and exploratory, all of which help draw an audience in.” However, neither data analysis nor interactive and compelling data visualizations are an easy task.
With the funding from Knight, Thibodeaux’s team will focus on building an “ecosystem for doing this sort of work,” which will include a platform for data sharing and analysis. Over the past year and a half, AP has undertaken a 50-state data initiative, which combines data sets from across the nation in a way that allows them to be readily mined to create local data-driven news stories. Given that the AP has already undertaken the laborious process of getting the data right: checking for missing data and errors, documenting the fields in the data, interviewing the data source to understand the limitations and idiosyncrasies of the data set and working with agencies to fix problems in the data.
The AP also hosts a conference call during which reporters and editors can ask questions about the data, about the national and state level stories AP is writing and about the methodology for working with the data. And they frequently include an interactive data visualization as part of the package. “In essence we’re able to help members skip the least interesting—but absolutely vital—stages of the data project, which means that news organizations who are stretched thin and may not have a reporter on staff with the tools to wrangle large data sets can make better use of their reporters’ skills and time,” he said.
To date, the AP has distributed data packages about a wide range of topics, which include community flood insurance rates, commuting times in U.S. metro areas and oil and gas drilling on tribal land.
Thibodeaux calls this effort a solid proof of concept that they will build upon by creating a platform that supports both data analysis and what he calls the news application side—tools that help bring the data to life for readers. Among the objectives are to provide additional support for mobile and social data applications as well. “We are thinking about how to make it easier for our members to know that there’s data available and make it easy to get and apply that data to storytelling.”
While Thibodeaux admits that the AP may well be conservative about its ethics and journalism, he also points out its long history of innovation. “We’re having our 170th birthday next year, but if you look at the history of the AP around photo delivery, video and different ways of covering stories, we have a proven track record.” And its increased emphasis on the support of data journalism—and using technology to do some of the heavy lifting as well as enhance the data delivery experience—is simply an extension of this compelling story.