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August 24 2010


#ddj: Follow the Data Driven Journalism conference

Today in Amsterdam the great and good of data journalism are gathering to discuss the tools, techniques and opportunities for journalists using and visualising data in stories.

Full details are on the event site, which explains:

Developing the know-how to use the available data more effectively, to understand it, communicate and generate stories based on it, could be a huge opportunity to breathe new life into journalism. Journalists can find new roles as “sense-makers” digging deep into data, thus making reporting more socially relevant. If done well, delivering credible information and advice could even generate revenues, opening up new perspectives on business models, aside from subscriptions and advertising.

OWNI.fr‘s Nicolas Kayser-Bril will be blogging about the day for Journalism.co.uk. To keep up with what’s being said, you can follow the Twitter hashtag #ddj below.

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July 28 2010


A War Logs interactive – with a crowdsourcing bonus

Owni war logs interface

French data journalism outfit Owni have put together an impressive app (also in English) that attempts to put a user-friendly interface on the intimidating volume of War Logs documents.

The app allows you to filter the information by country and category, and also allows you to choose whether to limit results to incidents involving the deaths of wounding of civilians, allies or enemies.

Clicking on an individual incident bring up the raw text but also a mapping of the location and the details split into a more easy-to-read table.

War Logs results detail

But key to the whole project is the ability to comment on documents, making this genuinely interactive. Once commented, you can choose to receive updates on “this investigation”

This could be fleshed out more, however (UPDATE: it’s early days – see below). “So that we can investigate a war that does not tell its name” is about as much explanation as we get – indeed, Afghanistan is not mentioned on the site at all (which presents SEO problems). In this sense the project suffers from a data-centric perspective which overlooks that not everyone has the same love of data for data’s sake.

A second weakness is an assumption that users are familiar with the story. While the project is linked with Slate.fr and Monde Diplomatique there are no links to any specifically related journalism on those sites, leaving the data without any particular context. Users visiting the site as a result of social media sharing (which is built into the site) might therefore not know what they’re dealing with.

Technically, however, this is an excellent solution to the scale problem that War Logs presents. It just needs an editorial solution to support it.

UPDATE: Nicolas Kayser-Bril, the man behind the project (disclosure: a former OJB contributor) explains the background:

“We contacted several outlets on Monday to coproduce the app. (we’re still in talks with several others in Italy, Belgium, Germany). What we offered them was an all-inclusive solution that gives them visibility and image gains and a way for them to engage with their audience.

“You’re right to say that the app lacks an editorial perspective as such. We’re implementing a feature called ‘contextualization’ that will offer users links to backgrounder stories published on partner websites according to several criteria (year, civil/military report, region, nationality of the engaged forces).

“Moreover, we’ve crowdsourced a huge work that considerably expanded the glossary published by Wikileaks and the Guardian. We launched a call for help on Monday morning. In 36 hours, we had 30% more entries related to unexplained abbreviations or details about equipment, as well as a French translation. Something we want to provide is a way for everyone with a low level of English to decipher the documents.”

March 19 2010


Interview: Nicolas Kayser-Bril, head of datajournalism at Owni.fr

Past OJB contributor Nicolas Kayser-Bril is now in charge of datajournalism at Owni.fr, a recently launched news site that defines itself as an “open think-tank”.

“Acting as curators, selecting and presenting content taken deep in the immense and self-expanding vaults of the internet,” explains Nicolas, “the Owni team links to the best and does the rest.”

I asked Nicolas 2 simple questions on his work at Owni. Here are his responses:

What are you trying to do?

What we do is datajournalism. We want to use the whole power of online and computer technologies to bring journalism to a new height, to a whole new playing field. The definition remains vague because so little has been made until now, but we don’t want to limit ourselves to slideshows, online TV or even database journalism.

Take the video game industry, for instance. In the late 1970’s, a personal computer could be used to play Pong clones or text-based games. Since then, a number of genres have flourished, taking action games to 3D, building an ever-more intelligent AI for strategy games, etc. In the age of the social web, games were quick to use Facebook and even Twitter.

Take the news industry. In the late 1970’s, you could read news articles on your terminal. In the early 2010’s you can, well… read articles online! How innovative is that? (I’m not overlooking the innovations you’ll be quick to think of, but the fact remains that most online news content are articles.)

We want to enhance information with the power of computers and the web. Through software, databases, visualizations, social apps, games, whatever, we want to experiment with news in ways traditional and online media haven’t done yet.

What have you achieved?

We started to get serious about this in February, when I joined the mother company (22mars) full-time. In just a month, we have completed 2 projects

The first one, dubbed Photoshop Busters (see it here), gives users digital forensics tools to assess the authenticity of an image. It was made as a widget for one of our partners, LesInrocks.com.

More importantly, we made a Facebook app, Where do I vote? There, users can find their polling station and their friends’ for the upcoming regional election in France.

It might sound underwhelming, but it required finding and locating the addresses of more than 35,000 polling stations.

On top of convincing a reluctant administration to hand over their files, we set up a large crowdsourcing effort to convert the documents from badly scanned PDFs to computer-readable data. More than 7,000 addresses have been treated that way.

Dozens of other ideas are in the works. Within Owni.fr, we want to keep the ratio of developers/non-developers to 1, so as to be able to go from idea to product very quickly. I code most of my ideas myself, relying on the team for help, ideas and design.

In the coming months, we’ll expand our datajournalism activities to include another designer, a journalist and a statistician. Expect more cool stuff from Owni.fr.

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