Digging into Data Journalism: Our Summer Research Project

July 13, 2016 by Nate Williams

This summer, we’ve started a new research project. The goal? To find out more about data journalism, and what, if anything, might make journalism-related data projects easier.

Our core question: are there any common data bottlenecks that data journalists encounter that Flex.io can help eliminate or reduce?

Why data journalism?

Flex.io is all about making data projects more efficient.

Most of our previous experience has been working hand-in-hand with business and IT folks trying to get data projects done. Across the board, we’ve found that the hang-ups and inefficiencies with this work are far too common and numerous. All too often, we’d run into the same, classic data bottlenecks – the kind of things that took months to work through and even prevented great ideas from getting off the ground.

Having been fascinated by some amazing examples of data journalism projects, we’re curious about what went into this work and whether data journalists run into similar problems we’ve seen in the enterprise realm.

Our hunch is that there are a range of ways to make data projects better for everyone… and we want to find out if we can lend a hand.

Data for social good

Additionally, one of the things we appreciate about good data-driven reporting is how it often leverages data for social good.

Data journalists, especially those we’ve talked to in Chicago, have been great inspirations, working tirelessly on a host of urban issues. We’ve seen important investigative and data-related work come out of both newsrooms in the city and from independent journalists uncovering stories in data sets. For instance, check out this interactive database of police misconduct lawsuits by the Chicago Reporter or a story on a reverse mortgage scam run on the South and West sides of the city by Jeff Kelly Lowenstein or the work that Injustice Watch is doing to “expose institutional failures that stand in the way of a just and fair society”.

These stories and initiatives have had far-reaching impact, uncovering injustices, substantiating them with the aid of data, and ultimately triggering a response to remedy the situation.

It appears Clark Kent no longer needs a phone booth.

First, understand

Any research project begins with some preliminary overview or survey. Before approaching data journalists with possible solutions, we wanted to gain a better understanding of the field. A good first step is to understand what it is data journalists actually do with data. And that’s where this summer research project comes in.

We’re trying to answer questions like:

  • How do data journalists work with data?
  • What efforts go into gathering and analyzing the data for projects?
  • What are the main challenges involved?

To start, we did a little online digging ourselves (so look out for our initial survey in an upcoming post). Now, we’re in process of reaching out to data journalists to interview and ask them a ton of questions about their work. The tables have turned!

Data journalism handbook

Interviewing the interviewers

We’re excited to dig into the specifics about how data journalists work with data, and we’ll be posting short excerpts from our conversations with the journalists we talk to right here on this blog. In addition to sharing insights from the interviews as we go along, we also plan to present our findings along with some analysis at the end of the summer.

And yes, we promise there will be some data involved.

So far, we’ve had the pleasure of talking with these data journalists and practitioners:

  • Alex Richards of NerdWallet and formerly the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE): On Data tools, challenges, staying skeptical
  • Abe Epton of KUOW-FM, an NPR member station in Seattle: On Pandas, and pain points
  • Matt Kiefer of The Chicago Reporter: On anachronisms, data exclusivity, teaching the best tools
  • Daniel Hertz of the City Observatory: On demographic data and slim margins of error
  • Tim Broderick of The Daily Herald: On data projects and probing Illinois school data
  • Jeff Kelly Lowenstein of Columbia College, and previously the Chicago Tribune: On using data to ask bigger questions

Meet the team

To make it all happen, we’ve welcomed two enterprising summer interns on board. I’d like to introduce our intrepid intern team tasked with taming this project. Talk about burying the lede…

So with that, here’s Isabelle and Eileen in their own words:

I’m Isabelle and I’m a rising fourth year at the University of Chicago. The interaction of technology, writing and writing about technology has always been a fascinating one for me, and studying both English and Statistics has only served as a catalyst for this. Data journalism is a natural confluence for these interests.

I’m Eileen, a rising third year at the University of Chicago. I’m deeply interested in everything politics-related and following FiveThirtyEight’s 2012 presidential election coverage really sparked my interest in data journalism.

Interested in helping?

We’ve already learned a ton and looking forward to sharing with the world. If you are a journalist or a policy wonk that uses data and would like to lend a hand, help us fill in this 2 minute survey! Or shoot us a note at hello@flex.io; we’d love to touch base. Thanks!