The rising tide of data journalism

January 15, 2013

The term “Big Data” has become a verifiable buzz term, rising to prominence in 2012 and set to achieve quasar status in 2013.

Corporations and even small businesses are buying into the idea of data-driven business, and Nate Silver is to data and presidential elections what Batman is to a beleaguered Gotham City.

But data is not new, and data journalism is as old as the printing press at least and probably older, if you consider cave paintings data visualization.

Humans have always simplified complex issues by extrapolating data and visualizing it in whatever way was most efficient given the tools and platforms available from the given time period.

Big newspapers have been throwing out the term data visualization since USA Today became known as McPaper, but in truth, data reporting, data journalism and data visualization have been a part of the media landscape for a long time.

Some of the first examples of modern data reporting saved lives when the Black Death was rampaging parts of England in the 19th Century and paved the way for massive changes in health care.

And visualizing known information was, as previously mentioned, used by generations of human beings to communicate. And, more modernly, Charles Minard’s 1869 chart showed precisely why Napoleon's army failed in its disastrous Russian campaign by displaying time, distance traveled and temperature

Data journalism, in a modern format, has a rich history steeped in sociology, the growth of cities and rapidly changing culture.

Journalists have long poured over reams of data, often stacking their work stations with expensive paper copies received from government clerks or hand collected through meticulous research.

The amount of data they were able to clean and then formulate into empirical evidence sufficient for publication was miniscule, as it depended completely on their ability to process these large amounts of data by hand.

When computer-assisted reporting rose to prominence in the late 1970s, the game of data analysis changed forever.

With each new increase in processing capability married to the digitization of documents, especially government documents, journalists gained access to unprecedented and massive data bases from which to extrapolate empirical evidence.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously said that the entire world generated 5 exabytes of information from the dawn of civilization until 2003. And that amount is now created every two days.

So data is not new, but the capacity to process massive amounts of data that can give empirical evidence and therefore clarity and meaning to various aspects of society and culture is relatively new.

But why is data journalism so big right now?

Much of what is new in data journalism is due in large part to the open data movement, which seeks to make data free and available to everyone. Through the efforts of organizations like Open Government Data and local groups like Smart Chicago Collaborative, data produced or commissioned by the government is not only more accessible not only for journalists, but for the public as well.

In the past, government data was mostly accessible to journalists who used the Freedom of Information Act to request records, which were often expensive to obtain as paper copies.

Today, government data portals like Chicago’s not only provide free access to data, much of it is accessible in a visualized format using graphs and maps, which can allow journalists to create data-driven or data-supported stories quickly.

Large metro areas are joining together to provide data across cities, counties and states, and this allows for massive data resources to be accessible to reporters and the public almost as soon as data is first available.

So while “Big Data” is a buzz term, the ability to access data and provide empirical evidence that could be beneficial to society is a long-standing part of the responsibility of the media.

WBEZ is partnering with the Chicago Community Trust and the Smart Chicago Collaborative to not only provide data-driven journalism, but to bring awareness about the impact of massive influx of data into our lives.

It is the goal of WBEZ to provide context and impact as well as transparency in data reporting. Data runs through almost every aspect of WBEZ. The obvious examples can be seen online in our maps and data visualizations, but WBEZ is discussing data on a regular basis during the Midday programming on “The Morning Shift,” “Worldview” and “The Afternoon Shift.”

WBEZ is committed to more than the production of data journalism. With many media outlets in Chicago and the region providing data almost daily, WBEZ is launching a new data blog that will focus on data and its impact on the city and the region.

is the digital content editor at WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook