Data journalism

I’ve tried my hand at another data journalism project and posted two articles about job cuts in Birmingham based on raw numbers and data visualizations at birminghambudgetcuts.blogspot.com.

This is my second attempt at data, the first being a Google Map on our website, which collates data on cuts to jobs and services and locates them on a map of Birmingham.

What is data journalism?

Data journalism is an emerging and increasingly valuable journalistic discipline  that involves finding stories buried in statistics and visualizing them in a way that makes them easy to comprehend. It’s research, analysis, design and computer programming all rolled into one.

In fact, I believe it is journalism in its truest essence: uncovering and mining through information the public do not have enough time to do themselves, interrogating it, and making sense of it before sharing it with the audience. If more journalists did this (rather than relying on ‘data’ from press releases) we would be a far more enlightened public.

Adam Westbrook, author of ‘Next Generation Journalist’, source: Interview by EJC, 2010

In the UK, the practice of data journalism is fairly sophisticated and has resulted in major investigative triumphs for both the Daily Telegraph which broke the MP’s spending scandal and The Guardian which published the Wikileaks Afghanistan war logs.

The stories I’ve  published don’t match that in scope, but are interesting nonetheless for people who live in Birmingham and are following cuts in public sector jobs and services.

I received two section 188 notices issued by the Housing and Constituencies Directorate at Birmingham City Council detailing potential job losses in the public service, part of the ongoing budget cutting process.

Section 188 notices trigger a consultation period with the unions whenever more than 20 potential redundancies have been identified.

One of the notices is 72 pages long and contains an endless stream of data breaking down potential job losses within the directorate geographically, by service roles, by pay grade etc. and includes business cases submitted to the directorate by each constituency.

So what to do with it?

For people who are new to this genre of journalism there are useful step-by-step guides. Check out this blog entry at The Guardian written by Paul Bradshaw, instructor in the MA Online Journalism program at Birmingham City University, as well as Paul’s Online Journalism Blog.

I ploughed through one of the section 188 notices in order to understand the context of the numbers contained in its 72 pages and decide which data sets shed the most light on possible job losses in Birmingham constituencies.

I then created spread sheets for each data set I wanted to visualize and inputed the raw numbers.  All that’s really required is a working knowledge of spreadsheets and formulas although a more sophisticated understanding of data management is an asset for smaller projects and, I’m sure, mandatory for major investigations.

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I then logged on to IBM’s data visualization tool Many Eyes, uploaded my spreadsheets, chose the appropriate visualizations (bar graphs) and embedded the html code into our website.

For an interesting overview of data journalism check out Data-driven journalism:  What is there to learn?

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