Before I went to the annual NICAR (National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting) conference, I often thought of data as numbers gathered and distributed by officials or academics — like annual crime statistics or Census databases. If no such data existed, then I thought journalists were out of luck.
But NICAR taught me that data can be so much more than official statistics.
So here’s how to channel your inner Nellie Bly and DIY (Do It Yourself) data.
Look at the notes in your notebook. That’s data. When we take notes on something, say, a privately funded educational program, we record the 5 W’s. That’s data.
For inspiration, check out: Homicide Watch D.C. This site gathers data from police reports, court documents and court hearings to examine every homicide in Washington, D.C. The thorough reporting allows the creators, Laura and Chris Amico, to analyze trends by race, location and more.
Documents are full of data, we just don’t see it as such. When going through piles and piles of documents, record what you find in a database and turn it into data you can analyze.
Check out USA Today’s “Behind the Bloodshed” on mass killings in the United States. The FBI records murders in which four or more people died, but USA Today found dozens of such killings (the tan circles on the chart) of which the FBI had no record. The team turned to news reports, set Google Alerts and pored over thousands of police reports from killings across the country to find a truer picture of mass killings in the U.S.
And then there’s the Internet. If you can’t find data on your subject, turn to Internet chat sites, social media and more. Turn your findings into data.
Check out Reuters’ “The Child Exchange.” A Reuter’s reporter was researching adoptions online and came across a Yahoo group in which parents sought new homes for children they adopted from abroad and other people were looking for such kids to bring home. The practice is entirely unregulated, so a parent can sign away a child to a stranger and that’s that. Reporter Meghan Twohey took screenshots of every post about a child and recorded all data to track their ages, genders, whether they had behavioral problems and more.
Don’t forget science. Curious about the water quality in your town? Take your own samples and send them into a lab. If you don’t trust the official report or no one is keeping track of an issue, use science to keep track of it yourself.
So how do you do a DIY data project?
1. Plan. Plan. Plan. What do you want to know? What questions will you ask the data and people? Determine your methodology.
2. Dive in. You have to start sometime.
3. Keep it manageable and quantifiable. You can’t look at everything.
4. Bounce ideas off a partner or editor.
5. Don’t recreate the wheel. Verify results and findings with academics and experts.
6. Talk to people. Data can only go so far. It’s the people that make a story.
Want to learn more about computer-assisted reporting? Check out these tipsheets from NICAR 2014 sessions.