Data journalism is hard. In particular, when it comes to data about spending, stories hide behind the numbers, veiled with jargon. Holes in the data conceal entire chapters in the great narrative about where the money flows and goes.
For many journalists, investing time grappling with tools to analyze spending data is unfruitful or unsexy. Even if they uncover a juicy figure -- an illegal company funneling funds intended for good or an erratic spending trend, for instance -- without context, the numbers can be as useless to a reader as a tour guide with a passion for reciting dates.
But these difficulties are precisely what makes investing time on spending data worthwhile. For journalists who can navigate the labyrinth of potholes and bureaucratese and do some basic math, accurate, insightful and interesting stories lie where their less intrepid colleagues dare not venture.
Spending Stories is a project that will give journalists the tools to research and analyze spending data and contextualize their stories.
The project's two main goals are to improve:
- journalists' data literacy
- the data literacy of the public
Simple -- on paper.
We hope that Spending Stories will help journalists:
- find material that may trigger them to write new stories, and speed up the process of doing so;
- help them research or fact-check stories they are writing;
- provide supporting material for stories they're writing;
- see what others have written or said about areas they are interested in;
- get a better long-term perspective of spending trends;
- have a bigger, more comparative picture of spending in different regions;
- do more investigative research that would otherwise be a lot more resource-intensive or time-consuming;
- systematically track transactions between certain entities;
- receive alerts related to spending areas they're interested in -- e.g, related to new stories, comments or datasets;
- and contribute data that they find to build on what's currently available, juxtapose it with other datasets, and highlight where the holes are in the data.
Spending Stories will have four main parts:
- Story Aggregator - gathers news stories, blog posts and other spending-related content using a mixture of automated tools and user input. We also aim to build on numerous other projects which provide aggregation and bulk analysis of blog and news material -- such as SYNC3, which matches blog posts to related news stories.
- Matching Tool - enables users to match current and historical news stories to datasets in a variety of different ways. Users will be provided with extensive means to perform custom searches, giving them the means to find the spending records that are relevant or interesting to them.
- Behind the News - an expert blog giving analysis and context to news articles about public spending via brief posts and micro-short videos (much like Hans Rosling's short videos as part of the Gapminder project), discussing tools and techniques for analysis, and the availability of new datasets.
- Spending Stories Plugins - ambiently suggest spending datasets relevant to pages people are browsing, and assist with embedding visualizations of spending datasets.
So that's the project in a nutshell, but we would love to hear from journalists about what they would like to see from the it.
The Open Knowledge Foundation, which hosts Spending Stories, together with the European Journalism Centre, is currently running a series of training workshops for data journalists showing them how to use the tools, techniques and data available to weave their narratives -- and the journalists are showing us their needs as well!
For the next session, we'll be in Warsaw, Poland for one of the satellite events surrounding Open Government Data Camp 2011. If you would like more information or to participate in the workshop, please email info [at] openspending.org.