Data Journalism: the View from Europe

This guest post comes from Eric Ulken, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the former editor for interactive technology at the Los Angeles Times. He blogs infrequently at

The fusion of technology and journalism continues apace. On a Manhattan rooftop next month, an emerging breed of journo-geeks will enjoy a coming-out party of sorts, in the form of a Hacks/Hackers mixer at Gawker's NoLIta headquarters. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, there's less glitz but growing interest in the marriage of news and technology, as evidenced by the European Journalism Centre's standing-room-only roundtable on data-driven journalism last week in Amsterdam. (I attended and spoke about the creation of the Data Desk at my alma mater, the Los Angeles Times.)

Talk at the event centered on:

  • The movement to open up government data in Europe, where freedom of information laws are generally less liberal than their American equivalent. Lorenz Matzat of Germany's OpenData Network talked about some nascent efforts (none of which appears to actually be live yet) to make government data in his country available online. And Jonathan Gray of the Open Knowledge Foundation presented the group's Open Data Commons, a stab at plain-English licenses for data in the style of Creative Commons.
  • Publication of the Afganistan war logs and efforts to help online readers make sense of the documents. Simon Rogers of the Guardian and Alan McLean of The New York Times discussed how their organizations handled the release of the secret documents shared with them by WikiLeaks, and Nicolas Kayser-Bril of the French news site OWNI showed his team's crowdsourced effort to translate some of the documents and the glossary of military jargon into French.
  • Tools and technologies for working with data -- even if you're not a programmer. Frank van Ham, who helped build IBM's acclaimed Many Eyes data visualization toolkit, talked about its evolution and mentioned Many Eyes Wikified, a version that enables the use of external datasets. Tony Hirst, a professor at the Open University, runs the OUseful blog, which is chock full of how-tos for non-programmers on using web-based tools like Yahoo Pipes to do, well, useful stuff. Richard Rogers, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, demoed one of a number of interesting visualization tools he developed that work with data scraped from search engines, Wikipedia, Delicious and other sites. And a couple of presenters mentioned Google Fusion Tables, a simple hosted database tool, as a useful way around Google Spreadsheets' 400,000-cell limit.

Each presentation was itself visualized in a decidedly non-digital way: "Visual sensemaker" Anna Lena Schiller was on hand to draw the conversations in real time (embedded above). Also, Ultra Knowledge compiled stats showing the most active tweeters at the event. And Chrys Wu pitched in from New York to assemble the various links tweeted out.

These sorts of data journalism meetings are becoming more common. In addition to the upcoming Hack/Hackers event in New York, another meeting on data journalism in Berlin promises some further discussion in the area of open government in Europe.

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