Spreadsheets, Datascraping and Huge Amounts of Hard Work: The Story behind the Infographics

I am obsessed with infographics. I love graphs. I’ve spent hours scrolling indepth analysis of hundreds of statistics and I am that person that fills up people’s inboxes by forwarding them all on.

Due to this previous fascination, I was extremely excited to be attending the panel on Data Journalism at the UK Conference of Science Journalists 2014 and finally find out about the nuts and bolts of data journalism.

I was not disappointed. The session kicked off with Peter Aldhous video calling in from the United States and doing the important job of defining what data-driven journalism actually is.

It became clear that it goes a lot deeper than my previous conceptions of colour-coded maps and pretty graphics and really is the foundation for a huge amount of the investigative journalism being done today. A piece in the New York Times on injuries to racehorses and jockeys was held up as a strong piece of data journalism as almost every statement in the article was backed up by careful investigation and verifiable facts. In short, the piece would not exist without the data.

Once I had learnt what true data journalism was, it was time to find out how it’s done. John Burn-Murdoch, Financial Times, explained the process behind creating his “maps” of the skills of all the World Cup teams, from initial idea, through finding the data, creating huge spreadsheets, selecting the relevant data, grouping the information and presenting it for consumption. This had the dual effect of making the final product seem even more impressive, yet also helping me to realise that data journalism projects are something that anyone with an internet connection, an idea and a lot of patience could attempt.

Further advice for starting out in data journalism was offered by BBC visual journalist, John Walton. The key message was to not get bogged down in the huge amount of software and data-analysis tools that are available today, but rather to choose a specific story that you want to tell and then figuring out which tools you’ll need in order to tell that story.

For an introductory topic, it was also recommended to make sure that it’s something with a fixed end point and that won’t need to be updated regularly, as data-driven journalism projects can be massively time consuming and it’s important to make sure that the story 'doesn’t run away from you'.

The take-away message from the panel was definitely to take the time to find the right balance between story and data.

"However sensational a story is, the headline must be based on absolute rigour and the methodology must stand up to scrutiny while remaining interesting and accessible," said John Burn-Murdoch and this sentiment was echoed in the particularly relevant Hans Rosling quote: "You have to be like the worst tabloid newspaper in the front and the Academy of Science in the back".