Thankfully the times have changed and the toolbox of science is now wide open for everybody. The rise of cloud computing and the wealth of public data allows journalists and scholars to do some serious computer-assisted reporting, or as it is commonly known, “data-driven story telling”.
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When you want to take your story into new, more informative territory, then these are some tools that you should really consider using.
Google Public Data
One of my favorite assignments to set for journalism students is to ask them to investigate the rise in broadband internet and mobile phone connections in sub-Saharan Africa. Doing an advanced search in Google by keyword could give you some results. However Google is not able to look into databases where these kind of number are generally stored. So the question becomes how to find a database containing these numbers.
After some discussion, students usually come up with statistics from the World Bank or the United Nations Development Project. Digging deeper into the websites of these organizations and into their spreadsheets eventually reveals the numbers they are looking for. But how then to translate these numbers into a visually appealing image for your readers?
Adding tables or figures to your text is generally not a good solution. So you have to make a graph. No problem. Excel is good at doing the job, and gives you a wide range of possibilities. Adding the data to a map is another step forward. But at the very least, one has to be familiar with GIS (Geographical Information Systems) software in order to add the numbers to a digital map. It can be a disheartening and overly technical exercise.
Google’s new toolset has made this all of this indecision a thing of the past.
In March Google launched a new service: Google Public Data Analysis. Suddenly finding a graph with the growth figures for broadband internet connections and mobile phone connections for Zambia (as an example), and then comparing this data to the rest of the world became simple. All you have to do is choose the dataset of the World Bank, search for mobile cellular subscriptions, and tag the countries you are investigating.
This is the result:
Adding the data to a map isn’t complicated either. You already have the graph based on World Bank data; just go back to the dataset and download the spreadsheet. Then import this spreadsheet into your Google documents. From there, you can add the data to a Google map with fusion tables. Finally, you import the spreadsheet in fusion tables and choose the visualise option.
Here’s the result:
Writing stories based on a series of vox pops is easy and fun, but it has no real hard data to back it up. Adding a small survey will often make all the difference to the weight and credibility of the story. This used to be very time consuming, but with Google Forms, an on-line questionnaire can be developed on the fly. Go back to your Google documents, choose New and create a questionnaire with Google Forms. For clarity sake, let’s stay with the example about the use of cell phones. You can mail the form, post it up on your blog and the results will be stored in a spreadsheet. Look at the results as a graph, then choose form and then show a summary of responses.
Here are my test results:
If your survey includes the address or zip code of the respondents, then Google can start geo-coding and add the survey to a map, giving you even more pleasing data.
The magic tool box that was previously reserved for scientists has finally been opened to the world through the digital revolution. Science and research is not only about knowledge of a subject, but also about the ability to access the tools of research. The founding father of computer assisted reporting, Philip Meyer, wrote in his book Precision Journalism: “A better solution is to push journalism toward science, incorporating both the powerful data-gathering and analysis tools of science and its disciplined search for verifiable truth.”
Now that we have access to the tools, let’s use them in the interests of better, clearer journalism!