The word ‘data’ may not conjure the image of a Madonna and Child, but with a bit of manipulation, numbers and facts can be made into something beautiful.
Although numbers, formula, tables and graphs may sound uninspiring, we don’t live in a world of colourless information.
We all use data, and people are not colourless.
Politicians, monitoring bodies, health organisations, charities, businesses, the media and individuals alike, we all use data in some shape or form, often to inform us of trends and to make decisions.
Data can be used creatively to explain, enlighten, educate and improve. It is as vital to journalism as it is to business.
Data is powerful. It can be used to encrypt secretive information, it can open up access to people and reveal the practices and decisions of those in power. CD’s with data can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds and can bring down politicians, just as in the expenses scandal in 2009.
This is a typical example of how the Guardian visualises data in its newspaper – in this case showing the MP expenses dataset.
But with the expansion of the internet, the uncontrolled influx of data can often be overwhelming. It can present a great challenge to journalists, as their primary task is being shifted from obtaining data to dressing it up for the consumer. The task of the journalist becomes as much about aesthetics as it is about raw data, as more people have access to information, we should bear in mind that the audience wants to be entertained as well as informed.
Online tools like Wordle can help in this process. This tool can dress up the Wikipedia entry for ‘data’ making it more aesthetically appealing, while it informs the audience of the nature of data.
But let’s take a more recent example: the wikileaks revelation of various US diplomatic cables known as ‘cablegate.’
The guardian website has an interactive guide to the leaks. The information presented up in an accessible and interactive way, allowing the user to search through the data in an interactive map, allowing us to navigate to the information we want.
As data becomes more widely available, surely there will be a greater need for data specific journalism. Data presentation skills will become more important than ever and with it the apt use of online tools such as Wordle, Many Eyes, Facutal, Swivel, Socrata, Verifiable.com, Google Fusion Tables, Widgenie, iCharts, Chart Tool, Open Heat Maps, Fusion Charts, Excel, Google Docs and Yahoo pipes.
Of course data can be manipulated and it is the job of the journalist to identify where PR wallpaper is covering the cracks in any political system.
Data is the journalist’s companion, together they can inform, educate, warn and criticise.
It may just take a while for a new relationship to flourish in the new online environment.