Brighton Future of News blog

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Live blog: Why journalists need data and data needs journalists #bfong

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James starts off with a graphic showing the debt mountain show the need for cuts and the national debt.

Looking at the deficit and debt he compares it with his own debts, outgoing etc.

The difference between cutting short term debt, and long term debt. The graphic on the front page of the Independent was wrong by comparing the debt and payments.

Another headline “Public sector pensions cost you £4,000 a year”. The number was ridiculous “tosh” not all public sector spending goes on pensions, there’s salaries, too.

It’s obviously wrong, but it makes people think the public sector is full of fat cats. It ended up on the front page of a national.

The Guardian is usually good with its numbers, but still makes mistakes. Now James is showing a slide of the Guardian’s front page saying two billion people will watch the royal wedding.

The biggest TV audience is 1.1 billion, the Beijing Olympics, the royal wedding reached probably 300 million people.


Terrible new disease will kill 1 in 1,000, but there is treatment and a 95 per cent accurate text. The treatment is dreadful.

The test will be wrong five times out of 100, therefore 1,000 tests will have 50 people with it, but if you test  positive  only a one in 50 chance you have it.

Bad stats kill people.

Jade Goody campaign to encourage young women to have smear tests, but cancer in young women is rare. The test is 85 per cent accurate. It is not in the general interest for extensive testing.

The MMR jab is a case in point. There wasn’t a link, but the evidence is MMR doesn’t cause autism. Vaccination rates are down and measles is back.

The pretend bogey man brought back a real one.

“We have to know statistics and know the signs to be sceptical. If a doctor or medical association is questioning a drug, it’s worthwhile asking why and asking if it makes sense.”

Ask yourself, does this add up?

James starts talking about the Iraq War Logs from his time at Wikileaks.

The way it worked was to mix journalistic skills and programming skills.

He worked for Dispatches and Al Jazeera, as well as an independent site now listed for an Amnesty award.

Looking at air power had defence experts listing the types of missiles and aircrafts. Programmers then found all this data and then a journalist checked it manually.

Just because you know what to do with data doesn’t mean you know how to find the stories. It’s not how to look for stuff but what to look for.

James shows a map focused on the Greenzone in Baghdad, Iraq marking every building with a fatality, he describes it as sobering.

People were sent to find people who were there, the survivors. It put the human story on the statistics.

Another map featured a video. The video showed two insurgents trying to surrender to a helicopter. The pilots asked what to do and were told to shoot.

We found examples of people who had been able to surrender to a helicopter.

A researcher found evidence of a person with their hands up. They needed to check if it was Apache footage from Iraq. There were details of the latitude and longitude, as well as the time and date.

Searching the data they found record of the right car and the shooting. They had the details of the range, matched the details and were able to release the footage with confidence.

It is always about the question you ask the data.

It’s not just about mapping and interactive, those aren’t journalists skills, we tell stories.

We need to think what’s interesting, what people engage with, what’s important.

It’s the people sense, the story sense, that’s what journalists are employed for.

I think newsrooms need data journalists, but hybrids are useful. To be a good journalist we need to know what’s possible with data.


Raul asked about data and statistics

James explained about having huge amounts of data, but finding stories when he was at the Grocer. Specifically finding price fixing in dairy.

Greg Hadfield asked how he gets hold of the data to find the many needles in a giant haystack.

James explained how he got the Iraq logs at 1am in a park and told not to go home. He couldn’t go clubbing…

Huge amounts of data on the stick and it was taken in themed chunks.

Searching the cables they would search for summaries or tags.

James was working at Wikileaks finding details in the cables. Doing a lot of coding.

James Ball answers questions

How much time do you get?

It depends on the project. Guantanamo was a group project with a deadline.

At the Guardian James is an off diary reporter. He has no patch, he’s not covering general news. Everything he reports is self generate.

With the Iraq logs he had 10 weeks to deal with data and create two versions of the story for Al Jazeera, a Dispatches programme, he was horrific.

The hardest I have ever worked in my life.

Joel Gunter asks what was James’s background in stats and numbers?

I have no formal computer or data training. I have some now.

James does have a PPE degree. He did quantitive methods in social science.

Learn what statistical significance means, correlation to the mean and confidence intervals…

Given the limited amount of time some journalists have at newspapers, do you think journalists will get into it or slip up because they’re rushing for a good story.

We don’t worry about quotes, because that happens, we should worry about numbers. A reporter should know that saying pensions cost £4,000 is wrong. We have to start caring. It’s more visible and now people start laughing at you on Twitter.

The Telegraph article doesn’t exist anymore, it says £400, it’s all very Orwellian.

Lack of concern or care has much bigger consequences.

Wale asks when a data journalist finds important things do you get a joint byline?

James does get a byline if he’s putting in a lot of work.

It’s recognising data reporting is a skill.

Wale continues – What about infographics?

They’re a travesty against man. They’re fine when they’re accompanied by good reporting or draw into good reporting.  He remembered a graphic on World Water Day of an image about the amount of water using in a slice of bread and a pizza base.

It makes people think they know something when they end up knowing less.

The worst are when they are heat not light.

Raul asks if there’s a place for infographics, in the same way as the twitter.

Yes but not in isolation.

Good ones are fantastic but most are very bad.

There was a graphic showing arms sales. It showed Saudi buying a small amount of weaponry, but the previous year had spent billions.

Have to think carefully about how we do infographics.

Talking about the police map, local newspapers could tag events and crimes.

That kind of stuff would feel okay. Use Google Fusion, put a post code in a spreadsheet.

BBC local network would have done it  then papers shot it down.

Andy asks about how people learn how to deal with things.

James learns when he has to. He suggests playing around with Google maps. When you replicate it in Google Fusion and it’s really simple.

Simon Rogers at the Guardian can’t write code but he is a brilliant data journalists and does amazing things with maps.

Are there girls?

Yes many. Celia at the FT, Heather Brooke, Nicola Hughes etc.

Greg Hadfield asks: When will they stop being called data journalists?

Specialisms are always around, investigative, photographic, so there will be data journalists with specialist in-depth knowledge.

Asked about strikes costing the country

Essentially these figures are made up. Ask yourself how did these figures come about.

James will be speaking at news:rewired – noise to signal on May 27.


Written by Sarah Booker Lewis

May 16, 2011 at 7:53 pm

One Response

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  1. Am writing a thesis on Public Trust in WikiLeaks, the Media and the Government and need to know what your opinions are. The online survey is multiple choice and will take approximately 10 minutes to complete. Please follow the link: Would be great if you would encourage others to do the survey also.


    May 23, 2011 at 9:12 pm

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