Discussing The Current State of Affairs for Civic Data in Journalism at ONA13

By Sara Schnadt

Panelists Sara Schnadt, Dan Melton, Elise Hu, and Anthea Watson Strong.
Image: Phil Tenser via Twitter

OpenElections was invited to participate in a session about turning civic data into civic narrative at this year’s recent Online News Association Conference. The purpose of the session was to survey the current states of affairs of transparency in civic data sets, and how journalists are using them. Hosted by Anthea Watson Strong from Google’s civic data initiative, the panel included myself representing OpenElections and Census Reporter, Dan Melton of Granicus (and former CTO of Code for America), and Elise Hu, tech and culture reporter at NPR (and part of the team that founded the Texas Tribune).

Some of the key questions that came up in this open-discussion-based session were:

  • How has the amount of available civic data changed in the past ten years, and how well are journalists making use of it?

  • What is the current state of available data  – how much of it is clean and standardized -vs-  messy and inconsistent?

  • What does a robust civic data ecosystem look like, and what are it’s components?

  • How are newsrooms adopting open source values and best practices in software and app development as well as data cleaning and analysis?

  • What can algorithms do that journalists can’t? (bubble up patterns for lead gen)

  • What can journalists do that algorithms can’t? (identify and tell a good story)

  • How can we make data sets and their interfaces ‘sexy’ so that we entice more journalists and the public in general to become more data literate?

  • Since the internet ‘trends for entertainment’ how do we deliver substantive stories online alongside the more popular entertaining ones when getting to content online is so targeted?

  • Is crowd-sourcing data an effective strategy for journalists? When is it more and less effective and how much quality-control is necessary?

  • Is access to large amounts of civic and social data, and tools to hyper-personalize it, making the culture more or less civic-minded, more or less individualistic?

  • How do you tell compelling stories with data?

  • How can aesthetics help make data more relatable and articulate the dynamics within it?

  • Is data the chicken or the egg when creating a story (do you start with an idea and then find data to support it, or the other way around)?

Illustration: Graham Clark, ONA Student Newsroom, ONA Illustrated feature

There was lively discussion on all of these subjects between the panelists and the audience (which included many journalists with deep experience on the topic). There seemed to be a general consensus that this moment is more exciting than it is challenging, and that next steps include: moving beyond civic data transparency to consistently standardized and easily available data (where OpenElections comes in); widely available tools for exploring and analyzing data; and an increased data literacy among journalists and the general public (which can be facilitated by well-designed data visualizations and great data-driven storytelling).

To learn more, you can listen to the recorded session, and follow along with the slides.
(Also see credits and further links for my slides).