Data-driven journalism is emerging as a valuable way of reporting, with government agencies releasing massive amounts of data -- willingly or unwillingly.
The challenge for journalists is to organize and present that information in a way that's useful and makes sense to readers.
That was the main takeaway from the three award winners in the data category at the 2011 Knight-Batten Awards and Symposium for Innovations in Journalism in Washington.
Here's a sampling of projects that demonstrate how data is changing news.
The Bay Citizen: Bike Accident Tracker
The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that launched in May 2010, covers local issues related to the nine counties of the Bay Area.
Alternative transport is high on the list of important issues for locals, explained Brian Kelley, chief technology officer at The Bay Citizen.
So the data team created a Bike Accident Tracker database, using five years of data from all nine counties obtained from the California Highway Patrol. The database shows hot spots, allows bikers to make comparisons by time and place, see individual accidents in detail and allows people to report their own accidents.
The Bay Citizen team also shared what they learned in the process. The organization described how they built the app in a blog post. Later on, a developer in Chicago saw the post and used it as a template for his own accident application.
The Texas Tribune: Government employee salaries and make your own Texas budget
The Texas Tribune’s traffic has been steadily increasing since its launch in 2009. The nonprofit startup focuses mainly on politics and policy and relies heavily on data.
“It’s a fairly serious website,” said editor Mark Miller.
The pages dedicated to data are an important part of its traffic. They're responsible for 62 percent of the site's total page views this year. “They are instrumental to the website,” Miller said.
One of the most popular databases? Its searchable Government Employee Salaries database, where readers could check out the salaries of 660,000 public employees in Texas. The database drove 48 percent of the site’s total traffic, according to 2011 data.
The database had another impact, but of a different nature: the organization also received several calls from state employees asking why their salaries were published online. (By law, state and federal employee salary records are public records in the U.S.)
The Tribune also created an interactive feature called Close the Texas Budget Shortfall. Since the state budget had a US$27 billion shortfall, the organization built an interactive application to let readers decide where to make cuts to balance the budget. Miller explained that the app was also quite popular with lawmakers during legislation sessions.
The Guardian Datastore: Investigate your MP’s expenses
“The days of us being the experts are over,” said Matt Wells, blog editor at The Guardian Data.
Wells explained that The Guardian is now also a data supplier. On its Flickr page, The Guardian Datastore allows users to create infographics using the news organization's data.
Another crowdsourced initiative by The Guardian is “Investigate your MP’s expenses,” where the news outlet asked readers for help digging through 458,832 pages of documents that showed the expenses of members of Parliament.
The Guardian also created a series of visualizations based on documents released from Wikileaks. Wells showed a map which includes the location of improvised explosive device attacks in Afghanistan and the increase of this type of attack through the years.
The challenge for legacy newsrooms when creating this type of content is to be flexible, Wells said, adding that news media need to try harder to bring in people with new skills.