Future Tense: the data journalist behind the Herald’s interactive graphs

The job of a journalist is to take the complex problems and re-produce them in a form that is accessible to the reader. This is why journalism students are continuously advised to jettison archaic language and PR puffery in favour of sentences that get straight to the point.

But the stories journalists tell don’t always have to involve 300 words squeezed into a newspaper column or published on a website. Some stories are best told through pictures—and this is an area that NZ Herald data editor Harkanwal Singh specialises in.

So what exactly does a data editor do?

“It’s basically about writing code, taking public data sets and telling stories through visualisations,” says Singh (living up to his reputation of simplifying complex subjects).
At first a mechanical engineering student who later felt drawn to journalism, Singh developed an interest in how data could be used in telling stories. 

“I was quite interested in what was happening overseas,” Singh says. “Data journalism in the States and the UK has been ongoing for about six or seven years, and it’s grown quite rapidly … and I saw an opportunity to do some interesting stuff that no one else was doing at the time in New Zealand.” 

He credits the work done at the New York Times, the Guardian and not-for-profit organisation ProPublica as inspirations behind the innovative projects he has developed on this side of the world. 

And his local efforts are being noticed by both the public and his peers in the industry.  

At the 2015 Canon Media Awards, Singh twice walked onto the stage to collect gongs—in the ‘interactive graphics’ and ‘best multimedia storytelling’ categories—for data visualisation projects developed at the Herald over the last year.

The first of these awards was won for the deprivation index visualisation, which provided an interactive glimpse at the deprivation levels across the nation. 

“The deprivation index is published after every census, and traditionally there would be a press release saying ‘the new deprivation index has been released and here’s a quote from the researcher’. 

Rather than regurgitating a wordy analysis of the results, Singh delved into the raw data and developed an interactive map that users could zoom in on to access the regional data available. And this piece of work has gone on to have a second life beyond the Herald, as an information resource on the Otago University website for researchers looking for information on the subject.     

“The whole idea of data journalism is that rather than relying on hearsay or what someone says, let’s show the information that exists. And I think it’s pretty cool to be able to do that.”

Singh’s ability to reduce massive quantities of data into bite-sized chunks was again on display during last year’s election, when he along with a team of developers covered the results for not just every electorate but for every polling booth as the results streamed in. 

“We won that in the best multimedia storytelling category [for this story]and the interesting thing was that we didn’t really use many words,” he says. “It was mostly just visualisations and data. People wanted to interact with that. The average amount of time spent on that was about six minutes.”

Singh says that the appeal of this story was largely attributable to the fact that it provided a local story unique to every community.  

“There was a general result that everyone wants to look at, and then there’s the very personal narrative of my electorate, my neighbourhood and my polling booth. There is definitely a lot of thought that goes into how you execute a visualisation project.” 

And while an interactive graphic seems far removed from a 3,000-word investigative piece, Singh argues that they are comparable forms of journalism.    

“It’s sort of like writing a feature or in-depth story, because your aim is to present it in a way that anyone who comes across it will be compelled to read through the story. Similarly with a data visualisation, you’re trying to attract someone who would not look at data otherwise. You’re trying to tell a compelling story.”

Looking at the level of sophistication on display in his data visualisations, you could be forgiven for assuming a team of developers and graphic designers support him. However, in reality, he does most of his work independently, punching away on his laptop like most of the other journalists in the newsroom. 

“We don’t really work with the graphics team; we do everything ourselves,” he says. “So, the interactives you see on the Herald site have not been created using software. They’ve been created using code and that code is written by us.”

His interest in data journalism has seen him learn three coding languages, and he says that he believes this skill should be taught at universities to equip journalists interested in data journalism with the skills they need to do their jobs effectively.

“Columbia Journalism School has a programme called the Lede Programme and they teach proper computer science and proper statistical analysis as part of the graduate journalism courses. I really think the journalism schools here should be teaching that. The schools here are really stuck on teaching things that were taught ten years ago. Web evolves really quickly, so it’s important to learn things and keep yourself up to date with new skills.”

This cross-disciplinary focus is also starting to change the look of newsrooms in the States.  

“The New York Times has an interactive news desk of 40 people, who are statisticians, developers, code writers and those responsible for data visualisations.” 

NZME isn’t quite there yet, but Singh says the organisation is starting to take data journalism more seriously.  

“This year, we hired what is our first position editorially, which is titled a news developer, which is someone who has web development skills but who also works as a journalist.”

Singh says that this type of cross-disciplinary journalism will only become more prominent as data becomes bigger and more readily available; but, this idea isn’t new. 

As far back 2010, the so-called father of the internet Tim Berners-Lee told the Guardian that data would play an increasingly important role to journalists looking to get to the truth of an issue.   

“It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way sometimes,” Berners-Lee told the publication. “But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.”

These sentiments resonate with Singh and he says that one of the most important aspects of data journalism is connecting more people with complex information that they normally wouldn’t be interested in.   

“One of the most interesting exercises during the year is to do a budget visualisation,” he says. “Doing a budget visualisation, you attract an audience who would otherwise not look at the budget in that detail. So, you’re simplifying what is essentially the complex financial story of the day. And one of the best comments that we got was from a reader saying, this was the first time they’ve actually understood what the budget was about.”

In addition to extending the audience reach of a story published on the Herald, this gives more people a better grasp of a topic often perceived as esoteric—which could lead to more inclusive discussions on major issues. 

While the internet age is often blamed for dumbing down the news to random lists and pictures, it is also providing a means to deliver complex issues more simply than ever before. And although cat .gifs will probably always outweigh data visualisations of important issues in numerical terms, it is promising to see that the online tools at our disposal are increasingly also being used to keep Kiwis informed.    

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