By Remy Raitt

“To find a job as a journalist is extremely difficult; lots of journalists have been laid off and are unemployed,” says former Utrecht University journalism, politics and new media lecturer and owner of D3-Media, Peter Verweij. “A strong position in the market comes with multi-media skills and/or data skills; being a fine writer is not enough.”

Data journalism; the basics

At its core, data journalism is the process of building stories out of data. Verweij says finding stories in data enables the journalist to dig deeper and provide more background. He uses this story by The Guardian’s Datablog as a good example. “This story is adding to background analysis and enhances the quality of reporting,” he says. By accessing numerical data from data basis, journalists are able to build stories that dig deep and investigate issues over long periods of time, relatively quickly.

The process

In an article for The Guardian Datablog, Paul Bradshaw explains how to be a data journalist. The first step, he says, is finding data. “'Finding data’ can involve anything from having expert knowledge and contacts to being able to use computer assisted reporting skills or, for some, specific technical skills such as MySQL or Python to gather the data for you,” he says.

Gathering this data is known as ‘scraping’. “Some data is available in public databases and can be downloaded,” says Verweij. “Sometimes it is on a webpage and then you have to get it out of the programming language of the web .html. That is scraping. But with data in .PDF you have the same problem.” He says, for this reason, data journalists require more skills than their traditional counterparts, in particular; “working with figures (spreadsheets), a bit of programming and visualizations”.

Once the data has been gathered, Bradshaw says it needs to be interrogated, which requires “a good understanding of jargon and the wider context within which data sits”. Next, the data needs to be visualised into a table or graph of sorts, after which the various clumps of data need to be mashed in order to get an overall understanding of the information.

How it’s been received

“Media, and newspapers in particular, in the western world have to find a new business model; to attract more subscribers,” says Verweij. He says data achieves this by “offering deeper background; enhanced reporting and interactive data visualizations”.

In a South African context, Senior Knight Fellow at the International Centre for Journalists and data editor for Code for Africa, Chris Roper, says currently “there’s more data porn in newsrooms in SA, which is the pretty graphs and pictures types, and very little actual data analysis and sustained production of data tools”. He says the local media has pulled off “some cool one-offs” but the complete lack of full-time data journalists in the country directly affects the production of data stories.

But, Roper believes data journalism has a bright future in South Africa. “It’s going to be much bigger, much more sustained, because media houses are going to see the revenue opportunities in data journalism, not just the editorial possibilities,” he says.

Why it matters

If information is power then data journalism offers a lot of clout. “Data journalism, and the civic society tools you can build with data, is one of the great weapons ordinary people have to preserve democracy in Africa,” says Roper. “We need more of it.”

Roper says that South Africa is one of the eight countries that were founding signatories to the Open Government Partnership, and the lead chair at the moment. “Code4SouthAfrica is busy building an open data portal for the SA government, so I’m hopeful that we’ll achieve open data fairly soon. Of course, monitoring the authenticity of that data will be key,” he says.

Where do you see data journalism heading? Let us know below.