Data journalism - a new paradigm in storytelling

Published: Monday | April 8, 2013 Comments 0
Maurice McNaughton, Guest Columnist
Maurice McNaughton, Guest Columnist

Maurice McNaughton, Guest Columnist

Some months ago, an editorial by the Chicago Tribune (one of the top five newspapers in the United States) on Jamaica's debt crisis evoked a variety of responses from local commentators and leaders, spanning the political spectrum.

The responses ranged from the dismissive to the defensive, casting the article as either sloppy journalism or deliberate mischief to discredit the stewardship of current and previous administrations.

It is interesting to observe that in all of the responses (with perhaps, the notable exception of Keith Collister's comparative country analysis of January 9), few attempted to provide a truly analytic, evidence-based examination of Jamaica's debt status as the basis for investigating, commenting on, and providing the kind of insight that not only illuminates but makes the issue interesting and accessible to a wide cross section of consumers.

This is what a new emerging paradigm in investigative journalism demands. Data journalism, a recently popular label, describes a modern approach to storytelling that makes use of the overwhelming abundance of sources of publicly accessible, authoritative data, together with compelling new tools and techniques for data visualisation and analytics.

Essential capability

Data journalism is both science and art, and an essential capability for today's journalists and media houses hoping to stay current and relevant in the digital age where the Internet, mobile tablets and social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube provide such rich, compelling channel alternatives for discerning consumers.

Media houses such as the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog), The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/) and The Gleaner's diGJamaica initiative are evolving into integrated media companies that are pushing the envelope and exploring new business models emerging with data journalism.

No less an authority than Tim Berners-Lee, credited with inventing the World Wide Web, reckons that data-driven journalism is the future of media.

So back to Jamaica's debt crisis. How serious is it? When did it start? Are we truly as bad as, or worse than, Greece?

The World Bank, one of the strong advocates and catalysts for the opening up of government and public-sector data, recently launched a data portal on international debt statistics that includes high frequency, quarterly, external and public debt data for both high-income and developing countries. The data were collected and compiled by the World Bank in partnership with the International Monetary Fund. The site is freely accessible and open to the public and allows anyone to examine trends in debt flows within the developing world as well as high-income countries.

I was able to generate several graphics from the site in a matter of minutes (perhaps, seconds) to develop a better 'picture' of Jamaica's debt profile. The charts accompanying this article are illustrative and lend a vivid, temporal perspective to the movement in Jamaica's debt status, relative to our earning capacity and financial reserves.

Clearly, there is a rapidly diminishing capacity to service that debt. Combine that imagery with a visual representation of Jamaica's 2012-13 Budget allocation, which shows the stranglehold of Jamaica's debt burden relative to primary government services such as education, health, security and infrastructure, and one doesn't need a thousand words to tell the story of the current crisis.

These are but a brief illustration of the enormous information resources available to our media and journalists to investigate, analyse and report the news in a fresh, new and compelling way that engages and informs readers across the intellectual spectrum.

The upcoming Caribbean Open Data Conference & Codesprint being staged on April 11-12 at the University of the West Indies' Mona campus, staged by the Mona School of Business and Management in collaboration with the Slashroots Developer community, will feature a special thematic segment on data journalism, sponsored by The Gleaner's diGJamaica and CARIMAC.

The conference explores this important topic to highlight the rapidly growing importance of the media and journalists in exploiting the availability, as well as propagating the awareness, relevance and emerging impacts of open data.

The segment will be anchored by keynote speaker Alex Howard, the Washington correspondent for O'Reilly Media. Howard is an authority on the use of collaborative technology in enterprises, social media and digital journalism. He writes extensively about the intersection of government, the Internet and society, including how technology is being used to help citizens, cities, and national governments solve large-scale problems.

Howard's keynote talks on day one of the conference will address the topics: 'Data Journalism - Emerging Trends, Best Practice and Global Leaders' and 'The Changing Role of the Journalist - The Art of Storytelling Using Open Data'.

This is a must-attend event for local journalists and media practitioners, interested in understanding the implications of this new emerging paradigm of data journalism. For more information on the Caribbean Open Data Conference, visit: http://developingcaribbean.org/

Maurice McNaughton, PhD, is director of the Centre of Excellence, MSB.


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