DataN to push past 'parachute' training in data journalism

by Margaret Looney
Oct 30, 2018 in Data Journalism

Newsrooms facing a lack of resources but itching to incorporate data journalism in their work have a new option.

DataN is a customized training package for learning data journalism, catered to fit bootstrapped newsrooms' needs and storytelling style.

Developed by Kuang Keng Kuek Ser, who’s wrapping up a fellowship with the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, the package covers topics like finding, cleaning and visualizing data, as well as interactive storytelling tools like Timeline.JS and others.

To tailor each package, Kuek will conduct preliminary user surveys to match the tools and trainings to the newsroom's coverage. He also plans to follow up with all trained staff with post-training support to overcome what Kuek refers to as ‘one-size-fits-all’ or ‘parachute’ training, when trainers or trainees come and go without sustainable and actionable results. He'll also feature free tips sheets and resources on the DataN site. 

Kuek first developed the idea as an NYU Studio 20 student, working in partnership with Foreign Policy magazine to developing trainings and tutorials for its staff. It was over the course of these three months that he thought he could expand this project to developing newsrooms around the world.

During his stint as a Tow-Knight Fellow, he got a chance to experiment with this idea, building out DataN over the past four months and even conducting his first case study abroad with Malaysiakini, an independent news organization in Malaysia, Kuek’s native country. Kuek previously worked at the newsroom for eight years, and with a background in chemical engineering and his familiarity with statistics, he naturally became known as the “data guy” there.

Kuek is planning to initially fund his project through a training fee that depends on the size and resources of the newsroom - around US$1,500 for a 20- to 30- person staff. He says he’ll also explore grants from journalism foundations to offset the cost for newsrooms. Another source of revenue could be a small fee for newsrooms to outsource some data-cleaning and data-scraping services to Kuek, as he’s noticed a steeper learning curve for these kinds of trainings.

IJNet chatted with Kuek about the project, why it’s needed, especially in Asian countries, and what he looks for in the perfect data visualization tool.

IJNet: How can you teach data journalism in countries without an open-data culture?

Kuek: For a lot of newsrooms in these countries, their first question is ‘We don’t even have government open data; how do we do data journalism?’. That is an issue of course, but in a lot of countries you can usually find alternative sources of data, such as from NGOs, universities and researchers...professional bodies…or international associations, like the World Bank.

I’m also looking at countries that are starting to open up more public data. Countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya and Mongolia are part of the [Open Government Partnership] where they will come up with a plan to open up more data for public use. These are countries that are starting to realize the value of data. So the question then is: do the journalists know how to use this data for the benefit of the public?

[I’ll also be targeting] newsrooms that want more interactive storytelling. The Internet is moving really fast in those countries and the newsrooms are having a hard time competing with social media and other sites online. So everyone is trying to make their content more engaging, more creative. I think this is where they can use a lot of tools and skills in data journalism to make their storytelling more innovative.

What do you look for in a good data visualization tool?

The first thing I look for is whether it requires coding skills or not. When you talk to newsrooms in developing countries and say ‘you need to know a little bit about coding, JavaScript or HTML’ they’ll say ‘no it’s impossible.’ The culture of collaboration of journalists and developers isn’t there yet so all the good developers work for big tech companies; they don’t work for newsrooms.

The second thing is whether it fits the newsroom. If your newsroom doesn’t publish maps that often, there’s no point in me teaching you how to build a map. If your newsroom deals with a lot of business news and you want to show the stock market, then I’ll teach you how to generate a stock chart.

DataN has already undergone many transformations and tweaks as you refined your project idea. How do you envision it changing in the future?

I have a big vision for this project. I hope that I will be able to build not just a business but a network of data journalists in the developing world, like a network for Southeast Asia or maybe all of Asia Pacific so that data journalists, designers and programmers have a platform to exchange ideas and work together on cross-border collaborations.

Data journalism in the U.S and Europe is a big thing; it’s a buzzword. But in Asian developing countries, it’s still something new. In the newsroom they still see data journalism as infographics. I think data journalism can be a very powerful force to open up data, to push for more transparency, in that part of the world.

You won’t be able to hit every newsroom in need of data journalism skills across the globe. So how would you suggest these newsrooms start to learn on their own?

Just keep on building small projects, you might not even publish them. But by building them, you learn a lot about the process. If you just read about it on a site or in a book, it doesn’t really help. The best way to learn data journalism is actually to build something and get people to give you feedback and see how people built similar projects.

Image of Kuek (left) during his Malaysiakini training used with permission