Tasneem Raja, digital interactive editor at Mother Jones, offered some great tips for managing data at a recent Hacks/Hackers meetup in San Francisco.
Nearly 150 people attended "Riding the Data Wave: Tools to Make Open Data Relevant," held at Storify headquarters.
With U.S. journalists now looking for data on government websites three to four times a week, now is the time to learn how to work with that vast repository of information.
Raja, who has also worked at The Bay Citizen, has no illusions about how most journalists view data in the newsroom. "A lot of people become journalists because they want to avoid the math," she says. With data, they find themselves steeped in numbers and confusing software.
Here are her four picks for journalists who are not yet converted to data geekery -- these free tools will help clean up and present data, making it easier for your news organization to use.
1. Google Refine
Billed by the company as a power tool for "working with messy data," Raja calls it simply "amazing." Most journalists are news gatherers by nature, but as a data newbie you might find yourself with heaps of files that won't play nice together.
That's where Google Refine comes to the rescue. If you know Python great, if not you can drag and drop, Raja says. The team at The Bay Citizen used it to develop an award-winning bike accident tracker, where it helped integrate data from different sources.
2. Tablesorter "It's dead simple," Raja promises. This is another way to get your data into one usable format, for example take those Excel files the city government has sent over and quickly convert them into a CSV file for a database table.
3. Mr. Data Converter may become your "new best friend," Raja says. The free app converts your Excel data into one of several web-friendly formats, including HTML, JSON and XML.
4. Geocommons A fast, free, accessible file converter for geographic data and maps. This is a lifesaver, Raja says, when the planning department sends over a Shapefile and you need to convert it into KML, a file format used to display geographic data in an Earth browser such as Google Earth and Google Maps.