Journalism++ is a network of data-journalists and developers which has chapters in five cities across Europe. With the goal of promoting the use of data and its visualisation for journalistic purposes, they create Open Source tools, organise trainings and consult other organisations in this area.
We contacted Nicolas Kayser-Bril, one of its co-founders, and asked him to give us an inside view about his company and the concept of data-journalism. Covering the theory, how data is currently being used to enhance story-telling, and the advantages for journalists working with Open Source and Open Data, this interview exposes a topic we were eager to learn more about.
1) Hi Nico, many thanks for sharing time with us. Could you first introduce yourself and present briefly Journalism++? How does it come that you are represented in five different cities in Europe?
We started Journalism++ with Pierre Romera, a developer, in 2011. At the time, we were working together at OWNI as a team of journalist & developer. When we left, we asked several newsrooms if we could join, as a team, and do data-journalism. Most were eager to hire us but not one was ready to let us work together. In order to keep working together, we created Journalism++. The name is a nerdy joke, as the “++” sign is an increment in most programming languages. In effect, it means “journalism is now equal to journalism plus one”.
As the company grew, we offered other data-journalists in Europe to use the Journalism++ brand. The Journalism++ network is organized around these chapters, in something that resembles a franchise. Companies such as Subway or NGOs like Transparency International operate in much the same way. Today, 3 companies that operate independently from us use the brand in Stockholm, Amsterdam and Cologne. All we ask from chapters is that they adhere to the Journalism++ Manifesto and be financially sustainable.
2) What does it mean to be a data-journalist? How does it differ from traditional journalism? Is the use of Open Data and its visualisation what make that difference?
At its most basic, data-journalism means using numerical data to tell stories. Let’s say you have a database to work from. You’ll need to clean it, check its authenticity, interview the data using data-mining techniques, and finally communicate your results, sometimes using data visualisations or more complex interfaces. This process can be done by one-person operations using Google Spreadsheets. But sometimes, you’ll need much expert skills, like statistics, computer forensics, designers or developers. And project managers to hold everything together. The end product changes too. Where we had articles or video reports, we can now tell stories using evolving databases. Homicide watch in Washington, DC, is a good example: it compiles all data it can find on homicides in the town. It accomplishes a basic task of journalism in a totally new format.
From a simple thing (doing journalism with data) we end up with a totally new way of doing journalism, which is very close to traditional software development. That explains why small companies like ours are better equipped than big newsrooms to do data-journalism.
3) You have participated in many events and trainings around Europe, divulging the benefits of using Open Data applied to journalism. How is Open Data seen among the journalistic community? Is there a general movement towards using Open Data in journalism or is it still a new and almost undiscovered topic?
Data-driven is still very new to most newsrooms. There is an acknowledgement of what it can do and that it can help journalists overcoming some of the challenges they face. But there’s no movement towards using open data. The number of requests for open data in most EU countries (look at the reports from CADA in France or at tools like Frag den Staat in Germany and Austria) from journalists still range in the few hundreds per year. It’s getting better, but very slowly.
4) We have seen in your portfolio that some of your clients come from the public sector. Is the public administration specially demanding Open Data-based-tools nowadays?
We’re very proud to work for the Île-de-France region, Europe’s biggest region by GDP. They set up a data-driven communication strategy alongside their open data platform, which we help them implement. Many administrations, as well as NGOs and corporations, are realizing that they sit on very valuable data troves. Most are just starting to organizing them and are thinking of making them more open. They understand that more open data will make it easier for them to communicate on their action.
5) You already developed really interesting tools and civic apps (Cartolycées, e-diplomacy, Alertepolitique, Datawrapper, …). Where do all these ideas come from? Could you explain more about the conception process and its context?
Most of our projects start at the coffee table, within the company or with clients and partners. We then take these ideas from a drawing on a napkin to full-fledged products. We sometimes have to find funding in the process. Clients are very open to experimenting with new ideas. In the case of E-diplomacy, for instance, a visualisation of diplomats’ Twitter streams for Agence France Presse, the tool really emerged from a back-and-forth ideation process between us and AFP journalists.
6) We know it might be difficult to choose one, but can you pitch one of your projects in particular? Perhaps the one you consider the most useful?
I’ll take the latest project we released, called SpendingStories. We had this idea with the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF), which financed the project through a grant from the Knight Foundation. With its OpenSpending project, OKF collects a lot of data on budgets and spending throughout the world. But not many people know how to read, much less make sense of, this data. So we built a very simple interface that let people enter any amount, in any currency, and see how it compares to items in different budgets. We hope it’ll make it easier for journalists to put things into perspective when a politician announces a million or billion-euro plan, instead of resorting to meaningless comparisons such as “this is as much as the GDP of [insert country here]”. You can access the demo version of SpendingStories, which contains data about UK public spending, here: http://okf-spendingstories.herokuapp.com
7) You release most of your projects as Open Source. What is the motivation behind this? What are the benefits for a private company like yours in a market economy?
There are several reasons. One is practical: Open source projects are granted privileges by many companies eager to encourage openness. We don’t pay to host our code at Github and many APIs and other services are free for open source projects. It’s also a great way to showcase our work to other developers and make sure that we code in a clean manner. It’s great to ensure a high quality in our work.
So far, we haven’t coded anything that is worth protecting for its technical value. What we sell to clients is our expertise rather than our code proper. They know that we’ll develop an app or a variation of an app much faster than they would, so it makes a lot of sense for them to pay us rather than simply take the code and do it themselves.
8) Where do you find the data you are working with? Does this data already exist or does it have to be collected before? Is the data already open and available? Which are the Open Data platforms you are using the most?
There’s no fixed rule. Sometimes we’ll tell stories using open data. Sometimes we’ll do a Freedom of Information request. Sometimes we’ll scrape it. Sometimes we’ll obtain it though leaked documents. Sometimes we structure already available data. And if we still don’t find what we need, we crowdsource data collection.
As for open data platforms, the World Bank’s is certainly the most useable. It’s great to see institutions such as the IMF and Eurostat making their data available. But I’m not a fan of the newer brand of data catalogs, à la data.gov. Most of them simply aggregate data that was already published somewhere else and add little value in the process.
9) Let’s talk about what it’s still to come. In your opinion, how will data-journalism evolve in the upcoming years and what are the future steps for Journalism++?
We want to become the number one network of data-journalism companies worldwide: a dozen of financially independent companies operating in close cooperation, so as to be able to launch large-scale journalism projects at anytime and keep hacking things!