Turning inner space into outer space

November 2, 2013

Solving the puzzle of data

The Webster awards, which honour the best in British Columbia journalism, have a section for excellence in digital journalism. This was news to me, but even bigger news was that one of the nominees was a radio station that ran a Twitter townhall — something we’ve done a couple of times in Kamloops without dreaming that it was deserving of an award.

So now we know better.

As it turns out, though, a much more deserving nominee won the award — a data driven exploration of political donations and lobbyists. Just getting the data in the first place took months of negotiation with the B.C. government, and then there was the headache of organizing cryptic spreadsheets so that they made some kind of sense. Congratulations to the Vancouver Sun and Chad Skelton for doing such a great job.

The Sun makes me wince sometimes when I see them wasting data resources on puff pieces such as where the best places are to get candy on Halloween, but the underlying methodology is well worth studying.

The big problem I find with data journalism is finding or creating spreadsheets. The data available is not alway conveniently laid out on a spreadsheet. Or if it is, it’s not in the order it needs to be in. This can create a lot of grunt work just to get to the stage where you can think about plugging it into a visualization tool. It’s frustrating to find a nice table of data only to find out that it’s in the form of a PDF.

Still, even news organizations with few resources should be able to persevere and do some of this type of work. It may take longer and it likely won’t get done as often, but that doesn’t mean it can’t ever get done at all.