Q&A with The Sigma Awards team

Conversations with Data: #43

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Welcome to our first edition of 2020, where we kick off the new year by announcing the launch of a brand new data journalism competition, The Sigma Awards 2020!

To mark the launch, we caught up with the Sigma Awards' co-chair Aron Pilhofer and competition manager Marianne Bouchart -- two names synonymous with data journalism.

The pair talked to us about how the new competition came to be, why it differs from the previous awards, and the backstory behind the name.


The Sigma Awards are the new successor to the Data Journalism Awards.

What we asked

Tell us about the Sigma Awards. What’s with the name?

Aron: "The name is important for us on a couple of different levels. First, it is meant to make clear that this is something completely new, not just a continuation of the Data Journalism Awards (DJAs) under a new name.

When the DJAs went away late last year, Reginald Chua and I had a number of conversations about whether we should try to do something to keep the awards going. But the more we talked, the more we realised we were talking about something quite different. So a new name made sense. Thus, the Sigma Awards were born."

And what does "Sigma" actually stand for?

"The name itself was suggested by one of our jurors, Steve Doig, and it’s perfect. In mathematics, the Sigma means to sum up.

But for those of us (like Steve) who have lived much of their professional life in Microsoft Excel, the Sigma symbol is like an old friend sitting right there in the menu bar staring you in the face. It has a special place in every data journalist’s heart. So, again, it’s perfect."

Aron Philhofer

Aron Pilhofer is the James B. Steele Chair in Journalism Innovation at Temple University and one of the co-creators of the Sigma Awards.

What happened to the previous Data Journalism Awards?

Aron: "As for what happened to the Data Journalism Awards, I don’t think any of us really knows. No one involved with the Sigmas had an official role with the Global Editors Network, so we don’t have any special insight into its finances. So I don’t think we have any better answers than what has already been reported."

How do the new Sigma Awards differ?

"As for how they will differ, that’s going to evolve over time. The mission of The Sigma Awards is:

  • To highlight the very best data journalism being done around the world;

  • To build programmes and resources around the awards that enable people in and out of the data journalism community to learn from this work;

  • To use the awards as a way to unite, galvanise and expand data journalism communities around the world.

What that means to us is that this awards programme has to be more than just a rubber-chicken dinner, oddly shaped plastic statue and line on a resume. We want them to be a centre of gravity for the global data journalism community -- an annual celebration of great work, but also (and more importantly) an opportunity to learn from that work.

How that manifests over time we aren’t quite sure yet, but you’re starting to see some glimpses of what we think the Sigmas should be about: There won’t be a big gala event. Instead, the winners will be invited to come to the International Journalism Festival in Perugia to participate in a series of panels, demos and hands-on sessions. They are coming to teach and to learn, in other words.

For next year and beyond, everything is on the table. We know we want this award to be “owned” by the growing community of data journalists around the globe. We know we want to be more directly connected to these communities, and we want to help empower them.

That’s our aspiration, anyway. It’s exciting."

Who is behind the Sigma Awards?

Aron: "So many people! And frankly, I am still in a state of disbelief at how quickly this came together. Late last year when it became clear the DJAs were going away, Reginald and I started talking about whether we might want to try to keep something going. We both felt strongly that there needed to be something celebrating all the incredible work happening around the world, but we had a very small window of time to figure out what we wanted to do for 2020.

We sent a note to our fellow jurors on November 27th describing what we wanted to do and asking if they wanted to do it with us. To our absolute shock and delight, we heard back instantly and emphatically that they were. We had a jury at least!

Simon Rogers at Google signed on as director. Paul Steiger came on as an advisor, and the supernaturally talented Marianne Bouchart agreed to manage the awards with help from Kuek Ser Kuang Keng.

Adam Thomas at the EJC signed on, as did Arianna Ciccone and Christopher Potter at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia."

Screenshot 2020 01 09 at 22 15 15

Marianne Bouchart is founder of HEI-DA and the competition manager for the Sigma Awards.

Who is eligible to enter?

Marianne: "All organisations, regardless of their size, but also individual journalists, freelancers, news developers, or students can enter the competition. The projects submitted have to be pieces of journalism though, as data-driven projects that were clearly produced for commercial purposes won’t be considered by the jury. If you have any doubt on whether or not your project is eligible for this competition, get in touch with the Sigmas team."

What are the categories for the various awards?

"We’re giving a total of nine prizes among 6 categories this year: best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms), best visualisation (small and large newsrooms), innovation (small and large newsrooms)*, young journalist, open data, and best news application.

*Two prizes will be given for these categories, one to a small newsroom, one to a large newsroom."

When is the deadline to enter and where can I submit my entry?

"Entries to the competition are now open and data journalists from around the world have until 3 February 2020 at 11:59 pm ET to enter.

Go to the Datajournalism.com website and check out all the info about the competition. We’re using a platform called Judgify to gather entries. You can get directly to the application form via this link."

When will the Sigma Award finalists be announced?

"As soon as the deadline is reached on 3 February 2020, our pre-jury will go through all the entries and come up with a shortlist of the best projects in each category, for our jury to pick winners from. Winners of the first Sigma Awards for data journalism will be announced in the second half of February 2020."

What about the final event and prizes?

"Our goal is to announce the winners online in the second half of February 2020 and to organise a session at the International Journalism Festival 2020 in Perugia, Italy, where all winners will present their projects and be given a trophy. #IJF20 will also host a series of sessions on data journalism in which our winners will take part. And that’s the big prize for all the winners: an all-expenses-paid trip to the International Journalism Festival 2020, taking place on 1-5 April 2020 for up to two people from their team."

ICYMI: other happenings on DataJournalism.com

In a world where journalists are also ‘numbers’ people, teachers need to find innovative ways to overcome their students' math anxieties. Using research from other disciplines, Kayt Davies outlines fun exercises that can be used in any classroom. Check it out here.

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Our next conversation

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 our next edition, we're looking for your advice on the dynamics of creating data units in the newsroom. Who is best equipped to lead a data unit? What do the best teams have in common? Can you really teach curiosity to a coder? What about coding to a journalist? We want to hear how you build a team with the right mix of skills to produce compelling data stories. Share your experiences here.

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


Tara from the EJC Data team

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