Creating Data-Driven Stories

Aron Pilhofer, interactive news editor, The New York Times

“I want to change how we think about data,” Aron Pilhofer said.

In an industry that is constantly changing, Pilhofer believes that data-driven journalism is paving the way for more approaches in interactive storytelling.

With interactive forums like The Obameter, Politics Verbatim and The New York Times’ mood tracker, Pilhofer said people are able to get information via different avenues.

“To take the problem of showing and telling a story driven by data and turning it into something like this is truly amazing,” he said.

Brian Boyer, news applications editor, Chicago Tribune Media Group

What do potters and journalists have in common? They are crafty people.

Having worked with clay since high school, Brian Boyer learned the importance of usability.

Much like clay, stories and interactive applications require careful detail and in the end need to be transparent for the reader or user.

“Usability is required for craft,” Boyer said. “The written story will speak to the trend, but what are the readers to do when they finish? Our work sings when the readers find their own story in the data.”

According to Boyer, at The Chicago Tribune’s applications meetings, the most important questions to get answered are “who are your readers and what can we do for them?”

One of the Tribune’s applications made it easy for readers to check on how safe buildings in the city were from fires.

“Craft is useful, fight your urges know your audience, make useful stuff,” Boyer said.

Alberto Cairo, lecturer in visual journalism, University of Miami

“In the past, information graphics were about presenting highly edited summaries of data,” Alberto Cairo said. “Today, an opposite trend is gaining momentum because data is increasingly available and easy to access.”

Today, readers are allowed to explore data and find the information that is most relevant to their lives. But this can only be done if the users know what the data is beforehand, Cairo said.

“In data, we have to become editors,” Cairo said. “We shouldn’t just throw data at the readers. We have to help readers somehow and we have to create layers in our information graphic.”

Those layers are presentation and exploration. For example, an application Cairo worked on in Brazil allowed citizens to view the amount of spending that went into congressmen’s cellphones. The first layer, presentation, presented the user with the ability to view the total amount spent on phones. Going further, the exploration layer allowed users to find their specific congressman and compare them to others.

“Overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand,” Cairo said as he quoted the Visual Information Seeking mantra.

Alastair Dant, lead interactive technologist at Guardian News & Media, London, UK

In 2010, Alastair Dant helped create a recording of all tweets for every minute of every World Cup match. This allowed users to see virtually all Twitter reactions to every moment of one of the biggest events in the world.

“You have to imagine data as sort of a raw material,” Dant said. “Online, people can move through and explore perhaps sometime in a guided way. You can invite people into a discussion.”

Currently, Dant is working on The Miso Project, which will open tools for creating and sharing story-driven interactive content,” Dant said. This project aims to speed up interactive storytelling and allows people to take a tool and start making their own version of it.

The seven people working on Dant’s team have to continuously focus on the big picture.

“Everybody is very pragmatic and everyone is capable of looking at the whole of the story and not letting details bog us down or get in our way,” Dant said.

Angelica Peralta Ramos, multimedia development manager, La Nación, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Nación currently has a Sunday print circulation of 360,000 and continues to grow. Since Argentina has no Freedom of Information Act, journalists like Angelica Peralta Ramos have to create ways to get information to the public in new and innovative ways.

“In La Nación, we had no programmers in the newsroom,” Ramos said. “But we had a team willing to learn.”

Using the “create once, use many” approach, the team at La Nación was able to start creating data sets for the public.

“This is the raw material of the future,” Ramos said. “The audience is there so this will transfer into mobile services.”

Using services, including the City of Buenos Aires open data portal, La Nación has been able to gather information for their interactive datasets.

“Our data is taken from official public records so this doesn’t mean that the data is accurate,” Ramos said. “But that’s something to start with because before we had nothing.”

Ben Welsh, database producer, Los Angeles Times

Ben Welsh believes computer-assisted reporting should mirror the scene in “Minority Report” where Tom Cruise is being operated on by robotic spiders.

“The computer can hunt the story and bring it back to us,” Welsh said.

With this in mind, Welsh has spent the past few years experimenting with algorithms that write the news for you.

“You find a simple, repetitive and moving data stream that updates every day,” Welsh said.

His data stream? The Los Angeles Police Department emails he receives at 2:30 every morning.

Welsh created an automated data pull that loads crime information based off the email into a database. Specifically written codes ask and answer the common questions a reporter would ask when looking at that specific data set.

“What do you get out of it?” Welsh asked. “Breaking news, a way around PIOs, instant analysis and automated copy.”

Welsh believes news outlets should strive for automation and make the process easier.

“You should see what’s in the tradition that is worth saving and worth making better,” Welsh said.

ISOJ 2012: New Narratives Q&A, from Knight Center on Vimeo.