Tips for journalists working with developers on data projects

by Jessica Weiss
Oct 30, 2018 in Data Journalism

Journalists unfamiliar with using and displaying data may be nervous the first time they work with web developers or data scientists on a story.

But Argentine journalist Martiniano Nemirovsci, head of special projects and technology section editor at Télam, the national news agency, says journalists shouldn’t be intimidated.

In the past two years, Nemirovsci has collaborated to create data-driven stories on topics such as Argentina's presidential elections, the nationalization of oil company YPF and a controversial media law.

IJNet recently talked to Nemirovsci about how journalists can bridge the reporter-developer gap. Here are some of his insights:

You don’t have to learn everything

To be successful at working with data, you don’t have to learn how to be a programmer, Nemirovsci says. If there are words or concepts that come up that you don't understand, simply ask, or try looking them up online. Before long, terms like "script" and "scrape" will become second nature. “It’s like learning a new language, but much easier," he says.

Learn how to recognize when a story would work well by telling it with data

When you're reporting, always keep a possible data element in mind. Nemirovsci says visualizations based on abundant and hard data are best, with data that is objective and indisputable – like places, dates, numbers and names. Also, accurate historical information can be used to make timelines, which are an easy way to enrich a print story. If you think it might work but you're not sure, just ask a developer.

Your job: to keep the focus on the journalism

The most important objective of a data visualization or interactive story is to show something that is happening, or which happened in the past. Designers and programmers don’t always know how best to see and tell that story, but journalists can help them understand that.

“When it’s time to go talk to the programmer, the journalist has to know where they want to go with the data and what they would like to show,” he says. “This helps to save time, which is fundamental nowadays.”

Help a developer out

There are simple ways that a journalist can make it easier for a developer. As a general rule, learn basic spreadsheet skills, and be able to sort your data using either Excel or a Google spreadsheet. For example, your spreadsheet might have columns containing names, quantities, locations and images. If you want a developer or designer to create a graphic showing politicians and their term dates, sort the data by the relevant columns.

“Although it will depend on the project being confronted, it is always easier for a programmer to work with structured data than with text,” Nemirovsci says.

Seek out tools and best practices

In Buenos Aires, Nemirovsci is a member of the local Hacks/Hackers chapter, which brings together journalists and technologists to chart the future of news. Journalists should seek out their local chapter -- or start one if it doesn't exist.

There are also a lot of free tools online, such as tools to make maps, timelines or graphics. Nemirovsci notes that a simple search on YouTube yields loads of training videos. Good tools to explore as you're getting started: Google Maps, Google Fusion Tables, Tableau Public and Vérité.

And take a look at what the best data teams are doing around the world. “This helps you to see what is possible," Nemirovsci says.

View more of Nemirovsci's projects at Télam.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sybren A. Stüvel via a Creative Commons license.