By Darren Gilbert

You’re likely to receive a confused stare if you bring this topic up around the weekend braai. It’s not wholly unexpected. While the idea of data journalism is not a new one – Trench points to 1960s America as its likely genesis under the initial name of ‘computer-assisting reporting’ – it’s tricky. Paul Bradshaw, a data journalism trainer at the Birmingham City University believes so too. “Some people think of ‘data’ as any collection of numbers, most likely gathered on a spreadsheet … But we live in a digital world now, a world in which almost anything can be – and almost everything is – described with numbers.”

At its core, data journalism is the process of building stories around data. For journalist Jonathan Stray, on Data Drive Journalism, it is the “obtaining, reporting on, curating and publishing [of] data in the public interest”. According to Adrian Holovaty, the web developer and journalist who is considered to have written the manifesto of database journalism in 2006, material gathered by journalists – termed “structured journalism” – can be sliced-and-diced in an automated fashion.

That might sound like a lot of hard work and not too exciting but Trench disagrees. “[Data Journalism] opens up new possibilities and fresh insights. It allows for transparency, giving one the opportunity to find out the whole story for yourself rather than just from an article written by a journalist.” It’s also a way to ensure that in our digital world, and with the rate of data that is generated on a daily basis, journalism remains relevant while also maintaining the ability to tackle big issues.

In such a world, it makes sense to ‘update’ if you will the idea of how journalism and stories are written. It’s certainly needed believes Mirko Lorenz of German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle who has contributed to The Data Journalism Handbook. “Journalism is under siege. In the past, we, as an industry, relied on being the only ones operating a technology to multiply and distribute what happened over night ... This is over.” As he goes on, the gathering, filtering and visualising of what is happening beyond what the eye can see is growing in value. Today, data is valuable. It becomes even more valuable if you are able to create a story around it though engaging visuals and infographics.

“Using data, the job of journalists shifts its main focus from being the first ones to report to being the ones telling us what a certain development might actually mean,” continues Lorenz. And the range of topics are endless. “The next financial crisis that is in the making. The economics behind the products we use. The misuse of funds or political blunders, presented in a compelling data visualisation that leaves little room to argue with it.”

It can also show how a threat such as unemployment affects people based on their age, gender and education. “Using data transforms something abstract into something everyone can understand and relate to.” With that in mind, it is difficult to argue that it’s not journalism for the future. Andrew Trench believes it is. If you speak to Mail &ampamp Guardian Online editor, Chris Roper, you’ll hear that it is journalism for now, the present. “Its one of the ways that truly great stories can be told. Instead of a linear story, you get to tell stories in 3D.”

And every journalist needs to know about it, adds Roper. “You might not have to create it but you have to at least understand it and learn to do it.” Data journalism is way to scrutinise the world and hold the powers that be to account. The amount of data available due to our technological advances this thought which Cynthia O’Murchu of the Financial Times, who also contributed to The Data Journalism Handbook takes even further: “This should be a tool in the toolkit of any journalist: whether learning how to work with data directly, or collaborating with someone who can.”

The future of journalism involves the analysing of data. Even Sir Tim Berner-Lee believes it and he said it two years ago. Overseas, it's widely discussed. Even in a country like Kenya, its gaining momentum. It's time that South Africa fully embraces it too.

What do you think of data journalism? Is it the future? Let us know below.