The rise of data journalism in Asia
Conversations with Data: #91
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Welcome back to the Conversations with Data newsletter!
In this issue, we travel to Asia with Adolfo Arranz, senior graphics editor from Reuters Graphics and Pei Ying Loh, co-founder of The Kontinentalist. The week's episode explores how data journalism is booming in Asia.
We hear about the pair's data storytelling process and the importance of working with partner organisations connected to data and local communities. They also provide an overview of data accessibility in the region and highlight some of the most notable work today, bringing China, Laos and Singapore to the forefront of the discussion.
What we asked
Set the scene for us in Asia. How vibrant is the uptake of data journalism throughout the region?
Adolfo: Data journalism wasn't that popular here in Asia three or four years ago. Suddenly, it is booming and a big trend. The uptake is now happening throughout newsrooms.
Pei Ying: Four years ago, the field was nascent when I started in data journalism. Only a couple of people did this kind of work that we could look up to and admire. And definitely, the South China Morning Post was one of those. But I think increasingly, especially in the last two years, data is the new kid on the block. Maybe that is because of COVID-19. It seems everybody is very interested in doing data storytelling now. A few years ago, very few regional data resources existed that I could turn to. In our universities, no one taught any form of data journalism or data storytelling at all. But now, it is being taught at polytechnical schools and universities, which is great.
Could you talk to us about how open data is in your respective countries?
Adolfo: This is something that has changed a lot recently. When I came to Hong Kong several years ago, collecting data was very difficult. In my case, the Chinese language made it even harder. This has changed a lot in the past few years. However, the main problem with China is that the data is not consistent.
Pei Ying: Singapore's government is probably one of the few in the region that collects data so obsessively about nearly everything in our lives. We know that data scarcity is not a problem. Instead, it's more about how accessible that data is and how often it gets opened up. We don't have any sort of open information laws or access to information or freedom of information acts in Singapore. It is up to the government's discretion what they choose to make public. And oftentimes, when they do, it is a summarised PDF highlighting one singular trend. And even when they do will release it in a workable format (CSV file); it's not granular enough for us to make a proper investigation.
Where can you get data for your stories if Singapore has no Freedom of Information Acts?
Pei Ying: People tend to turn to more citizen-based or grassroots-type data sources. This is why I think there are some organisations like Open Development Mekong that are so important for journalists to work with. We've worked with them on one of our latest data stories. These development organisations approach other organisations and academics to try and open up datasets for the public to use. I think it's essential that organisations like this exist to help not just journalists but everyone in general.
Many of us have heard of Reuters Graphics and the South China Morning Post, but not necessarily The Kontinentalist. Could you tell us more?
Pei Ying: The Kontinentalist's mission is to bring Asia to the forefront of global conversations. We are a data storytelling studio. In addition to journalism, we also do client work, although that's not hosted on our publication. We find that in the media, discussions around Asian topics are sometimes a little problematic. It's always used with a certain lens, for example, dictatorship, authoritarianism, natural disasters, poverty, etc. We wanted to talk about Asia in slightly more empowering terms and exercise decolonisation in the concepts and words we use.
At the start, we produced very straightforward journalism with no calls to action at the end of our pieces. However, two years ago, our team decided to be cause-driven in the content we create by focusing on social justice issues, climate change, and cultural and societal issues. We now always end up with a call to action encouraging people to support this particular initiative or investigate the topic further. We often also partner with a lot of these non-profit cause-driven organisations like UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders and most recently, Oxfam.
Pei Ying, The Kontinentalist published a story explaining how Laos turned to intense infrastructural development and foreign direct investments to accelerate economic growth. Could you tell us about the data storytelling process for this article?
Pei Ying: Our partner Open Development Mekong, who we've worked with in the past, pitched this story to us about foreign direct investment in Laos. Open Development Mekong is dedicated to opening up information and access to information in the Mekong countries. This is a "follow the money" type story with the aim to understand in a very micro way, not just which countries are investing in Laos, but who is investing. For instance, what organisations and companies are getting involved in these infrastructural developments in Laos.
The process for this story was incredibly tedious and took nearly a year. The major component was compiling the data. We had to identify many major data sources that already had their own repositories for tracking infrastructural development and foreign investment in the region. Even though a handful of organisations do this very well, they all collected the data slightly differently. They have different categories and sometimes spell project names differently. We had to compile all of this and clean it. Next, we compiled a list of companies named in these projects and began researching them. We searched for information like where they were founded, who owns these companies and who the stakeholders are. This allowed us to develop a complete picture of who's connected to what.
In the end, designing it and writing was 1% of the time invested in this project. But we're pleased with the outcome. We used the survey template in Flourish. That resulted in a network graph, which is one of the main pieces of data visualisations in that story. Laos' landscape was one of the key pieces in the story we wanted to show. It's a very mountainous country with lots of flowing rivers which explains why it focuses on major hydropower development investment.
Adolfo, you previously worked at the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and now have joined Thomson Reuters' Graphics team. Let's talk about a visual piece you did at the SCMP before you left.
Adolfo: Life in Hong Kong's Shoebox Housing is a project we began last August. It took almost a year to complete. The most important part of this project involved doing field work and visiting these shoebox apartments to experience how people were living. After a few visits, we collected photos, videos and many notes. Afterwards, we had several team meetings and came up with as many ideas as we could. It wasn't easy, because we had to balance the amount of information and feeling with building a narrative and articulating a story. It was a very exciting project because the topic was very interesting. By using illustrations, we gave some drama to the story and it allowed us to explain the problem better. We were thinking of using video, but we decided illustrations were a better digital medium and more of SCMP's style.
What coding skills do you have?
Adolfo: I have minimal coding skills. The team at SCMP is mostly graphic designers with artistic backgrounds. As I said, we are known for our illustrations in our visual storytelling.
Pei Ying: To be a data journalist, you don't need to know code. I personally don't write any code. In terms of tools, I use Google Sheets, Flourish and Figma.
What advice do you have for people entering data journalism?
Adolfo: I think it's necessary to be very interested in the field and to find a passion for visual data. It would help if you also had a passion for telling stories too. You need to be very curious and passionate. Otherwise, I think it will be challenging because it is a lot of work. And, of course, you need to enjoy the job.
Pei Ying: I think passion is a prerequisite because it's a long process that is also frustrating at the same time. But it's also rewarding. One piece of advice I would give is to be bold about experimenting and do a lot of practice. You can watch all the videos on DataJournalism.com, but nothing can teach you better than applying these concepts in real life. And even if you don't work for a newspaper, start with your own data. Journalism is a field that requires a lot of brainstorming and iteration. Sometimes we must be ready to give up our ideas and not be as emotionally invested in them when they get killed. Iterate, experiment, and get feedback.
Finally, what are some bold predictions you have for the industry?
Adolfo: For me, it is not easy to predict the future. With rampant technology, however, I believe we will see new narratives for journalism. Maybe we will see the uptake of virtual reality -- or not. Who knows? Sometimes these things can be a trend and then fizzle out after a few years. I think the future of visual journalism and data visualisation is to do more simple and digestible things.
Pei Ying: When I started doing data journalism, the big thing was scrollytelling. This is still a big thing for data journalism, but it's nice that there's been a clear shift to do less and deliver shorter articles. This is about making the visuals more meaningful. We see that with The New York Times and their mobile-friendly pieces. We probably will see more machine learning and even AI to inform the data collection or the data design of a piece. The Pudding is already doing this with machine learning-type stories where you can interact with the bot, or you can interact with the tools that they've built in and generate something for yourself. We probably will see more journalists harnessing the power of these technologies to gather data or use it to render a piece of data to get more insights.
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Tara from the EJC data team,
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