How one Indian newsroom is using Google tools to improve digital storytelling

bySara Olstad
Oct 11, 2017 in Data Journalism
Google Maps storytelling

Easy-to-use digital tools, like Google Fusion Tables and Google MyMaps, can help journalists add data and visualizations to their reporting, breaking down complex topics in the news without losing any of an issue’s nuance.

IndiaSpend, India’s first data journalism news outlet and syndication service, used these tools to tell the story of demonetization, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to devalue more than 86 percent of Indian currency overnight. The policy led to financial chaos, and in the aftermath, an IndiaSpend editor gathered hours of interviews, hundreds of data points and photos from across Mumbai to show how the policy had directly affected local business owners’ livelihoods, in many cases leaving them facing revenue losses of more than 50 percent.

IndiaSpend organized this data in Google Sheets and used it to power a MyMaps visualization that mapped the location of each of the owners in its survey. Clicking on a store in the map reveals more information about each business and its financial struggles, allowing readers to identify trends across Mumbai and nearby rural areas. The map drove significant engagement on the site, including upwards of 20,000 clicks and more than double the time readers spend on an the average IndiaSpend article page.

Media across India covered demonetization heavily, but what made IndiaSpend’s reporting unique was its team’s usage of maps and other data visualization tools to complete a project that would have been nearly impossible to tell with only text. International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) Google Fellow Irshad Daftari introduced IndiaSpend to these digital tools and taught the journalists how to integrate them in their reporting -- all the way from planning to publishing content. With support from Google News Lab, ICFJ embedded him in Indian newsrooms for one year to drive the adoption of the latest tools, content distribution strategies and audience engagement techniques.

Other media -- nationally in India and internationally -- took notice of this story’s strong data journalism and innovative multimedia. The Global Editors Network nominated IndiaSpend for a 2017 Data Journalism Award for its “Currency Chaos” series, which included this story.

“We used a lot of the tools and concepts that were introduced by Irshad to our newsroom - Google Maps, Fusion Tables, live tweeting and live videos,” IndiaSpend Editor Samar Halarnkar said. “It was our first attempt at using a lot of these interactive tools, and we were able to bring it together at quite a large scale, especially for a story series like this.”

Recognizing the innovative multimedia and strong data journalism, major Indian media outlets, including Scroll, Sify, First Post and Business Standard, republished this story, and the Wire referenced it in their reporting. IndiaSpend also published it in Hindi.

We talked to the IndiaSpend team and Daftari about their use of digital tools to report on demonetization -- and how other newsrooms can incorporate more multimedia in their reporting:

How did you decide which tools you would use to tell this story?

Irshad Daftari, ICFJ Google Fellow: This story took two to three weeks of planning and 24 people were interviewed. There were photos, videos, tweets and data on demography, income, etc. The project required an elegant way to tell every store owners’ story within the larger story, without resorting to a chart. Our hope for the Google MyMaps visualization is that it allows the reader to get the big picture in terms of geography, spread and data.

Alison Saldanha, IndiaSpend assistant editor: We had a lot of data about these store owners, [and] I wanted to put a face to the numbers, using MyMaps to build a profile for each person. I met these people, and I got details about how each and every one of them was facing demonetization.  

I started this project in a very methodical research sort of way -- I was calculating percentages for how many [owners] said yes and no to each question to create charts. But there was more than that in the data, and I wanted our readers to also realize that these are people, not just numbers. In that sense, the map is tracking where I traveled to give a glimpse of the journey that I had made to go and meet these people.

What do you think is the most challenging aspect of telling stories on a digital platform?

Samar Halarnkar, IndiaSpend editor: The transition from a print journalist to a digital one is not easy. For this story, we had to be adept at storytelling, live tweeting, data analysis, social media, videos. That’s a lot of skills needed to tell a single story! Given this, I think the most important thing and also the most challenging is simply to be organized. You need to figure out an area and a timespan for the story. You must be very clear about the people you’re going to interview and what you need from each of them to have consistent data. You also need to plan the technology elements that you will use and how to incorporate them with the storytelling.

Farah Thakur, IndiaSpend edit assistant: The most challenging part of telling the story on a digital platform was that there was so much information, and we didn’t know how to organize it initially. There were so many questions, there were so many pictures, but we didn’t know how to put it all together. We had a session with [Google News Lab Media Training Specialist] Surabhi Malik and Irshad, and they introduced us to Google MyMaps. We wanted to give it a shot.

How did the audience respond to this story and the format?

Daftari: The audience responded very well to the Google MyMap that we embedded. There were about four clicks on the map to every page view, which means that readers were highly engaged, clicking on multiple store owner profiles to see how demonetization affected these individuals. We caught the attention of other big media outlets who republished the content and Aam Aadmi Party, an Indian political party, also shared the photos taken as a part of the story on [its] Facebook page.

Saldanha: I got quite a lot of comments coming in from readers saying, ‘Oh you are the one who did the story on mom and pop shops. That was so cool with visualization.’ It is always nice, I think we generally get good feedback for our stories, … but in this case what was particularly nice about this is that other newsrooms in the city and in the country were giving us feedback. They were saying, ‘That is a great story, we all really liked what you all did. … We should have used these maps.’ We don’t usually hear this from other newsrooms, so we treasure it.

What could be done to improve the tools you used?

Daftari: We’d like to have a way to merge our MyMap with some pre-defined KML files or JavaScript (a bit like OpenStreetMaps). This would give us the ability to color-code specific areas or geographic features in the data. We can do this now, but it requires the use of Fusion Tables in addition to MyMaps, which makes it more time consuming to build. (Check out this example from IndiaSpend showing this idea in action or this story, which used the same tools to make a GIF.)

Saldanha: I would like to be able to make the text [on the owners’ profiles] a little less tiny. It can be hard to read when you’re scrolling up and down, especially on a phone. I think more control over how that data and text looks would be beneficial —things like changing the colors or adjusting the image size. We need a way to emphasize the most striking responses.

What are some key takeaways you’d share with other newsrooms hoping to do something similar?

Halarnkar: Indian newsrooms must become familiar with different digital tools available at their disposal, like we’re trying to do at IndiaSpend. They also need to learn how to mine data better, especially from different sources. And lastly, the organization should have the ability to weave in the usage of digital tools, data and storytelling in an optimal manner.

Saldanha: Make sure you plan. Any big storytelling projects like this involve having a certain idea as to what you are going to say with all of that data, and how you are going to go about getting that data. For instance, when I went chasing after the story, I had to plan in advance, ‘I am going to hit these stores in Mumbai, and then I am going to go beyond Mumbai to more rural areas, and sort of see how those are doing.’ That’s to say, I planned my trip physically -going from one store to the next- and digitally -what each element would be- ahead of time with my colleagues.

Irshad Daftari, an experienced media strategist, specializes in digital journalism, audience engagement and news product development. He has a strong background training local journalists on the latest online journalism tools, including Google Fusion Tables, Dataminr, Newswhip, Facebook Live, interactive timelines and a variety of analytics platforms. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Google Fellow here.