Decoding the dynamics of a data team

Conversations with Data: #44

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Behind every award-winning data visualisation, there's a hardworking team merging the best of design, code and journalism. But orchestrating such a data team is no small feat.

In this 44th edition, we'll be looking at all of the advice you have on creating and managing data units in the newsroom. We'll also hear from investigative and non-profit teams that lead projects remotely.

What you said

What’s the best mix of skills for a data team? Let's begin with The Telegraph's Ashley Kirk, one of the paper's first data journalists: "Data journalism teams need a breadth of skills, but the most important one is simply journalism. The ability to dig out a story in data and be able to communicate it to an audience. Every other related skill - using scraping or freedom of information requests to source information, using R or Microsoft Excel to analyse data, or using ggplot, QGIS or other tools to visualise your findings - is simply a means to an end."

At ICIJ, research editor Emilia Diaz-Struck explained, "Our team is a multidisciplinary team with a combination of skillsets that allows us to bring different approaches to the data work we do. We have data reporters, researchers, developers, fact-checkers and an editor, working together on the data in coordination with our team of reporters. A combination of data analysis, research, coding, fact-checking and reporting can be very powerful for a data team."

At DATA4CHANGE, a non-profit working with civil society organisations to create data-driven advocacy projects, co-founder Stina Backer shared their experience: "Most people we select are T shaped, meaning that they are capable in many fields and expert in at least one. Once in a blue moon, we come across a unicorn -- a person with expert skills in many disciplines -- but they are rare. Some have years of experience, and others are rising stars. Diversity is the teams’ real superpower."

Building and leading a data team

Pete Sherlock, the BBC's Assistant Editor from the Shared Data Unit, gave a few tips for those starting out: "The key for me when setting up a data unit is not to fret too much about being able to do everything at first. Just tell great stories. Content is key, and about 90% of content can be created using Excel and sound data principles. When you face a specific problem, work out how to solve it. That might involve code, it might not. Build up your skillset as you move forward...Don’t worry about not knowing everything at once. Here’s a secret: nobody does."

When you have a multidisciplinary team of data journalists, designers and coders in one space, it can be tricky to pinpoint the best person to steer the team.

One journalist who has worked across a number of UK national newspapers on data-led investigations is Leila Haddou. The former data editor of The Times and The Sunday Times advised, "Whoever leads the data team should be focussed on stories and have a broad mix of skills. Even if they cannot code themselves, they must be at least have an understanding of what's possible and in what timeframe. In teams with a mix of skills, projects should be approached in a truly collaborative fashion."


Lost in translation

But how do data teams speak the same language when hailing from such different worlds?

James Tozer, a data journalist at The Economist, said the choice of tools for collaboration is key: "Because we're largely using R, it is possible for writers and designers to collaborate more closely, and inspect each other's work.

But he also highlighted how important building a culture of shared learning is for the team: "I think we've now reached quite a nice multi-disciplinary mix, where several people have particular skillsets (such as Elliot Morris in statistical modelling, or Evan Hensleigh in interactive design), which means that if you need help with a particular task, you can usually find someone on the team with more knowledge of it than you."

Moving beyond your speciality

And what about specialising in design, code or storytelling? Is it better to hone in on one skill or attempt to learn them all?

Marie Segger, a data journalist at The Economist, believes there's merit in developing a varied skillset: "I find that especially when teams are small, you need to be an all-rounder who can gather, analyse, visualise and write about the data."

The FT's data reporter David Blood values keeping an open mind about who can learn what: "I sometimes hear people say things like: “You can teach coding to a reporter, but you can't teach reporting to a coder”. The implication there is that journalistic instincts are the sole preserve of traditional reporters. I've found that to be a mistaken view: I've worked with developers who have great news sense. I think the real issue is that reporting and news writing are like any craft in that they require regular practice and take time to master.

When the newsroom doesn't 'get' data

Communication isn't just an area of concern between members of a data team. Misunderstandings can exist in the newsroom, too.

Niko Kommenda, who's both a journalist and developer at The Guardian, gave us his take: “Working on a team that can do both data analysis and visualisation is exciting because you can potentially get involved in all steps of the story process. The challenge, however, is in communicating with other teams in the newsroom when to approach us and what to expect.”

Investigative journalist Leila Haddou noted a similar experience: "Often the tendency is to treat highly skilled individuals in these newer roles as some sort of service desk. It is better that we make the best of everyone's talent and the results will speak for themselves!"

ICYMI: other happenings on

Often referred to as the fourth estate, journalism is key to a democratic society. But sometimes just reporting on an issue isn’t enough. To promote accountability, Civio founder Eva Belmonte explores how data is blurring the lines between advocacy and journalism. Check it out here.

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Our next conversation

It’s time for another AMA! Joining us in the next edition, we have Sean Gilroy, the BBC's Cognitive Design Head and Neurodiversity Lead. We'll hear all about inclusive design and why it matters for your data storytelling. Wait, 'what's neurodiversity?' you ask. It's a relatively new term that relates to spectrum conditions such as dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and many other neurological conditions. Comment to submit your questions.

As always, don’t forget to let us know what you’d like us to feature in our future editions. You can also read all of our past editions here.


Tara from the EJC Data team

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