The Art and Science of Data-Driven Journalism

The Growth of the News App

Traditionally, computer-assisted reporting focused on gathering and analyzing data as a means to support investigations. Where traditional CAR focused on analysis, the data-driven journalism of today includes data publishing, reuse, and usability.“Increasingly, I think data journalists also think about how they can provide these data sets in an easy-to-use way for the public,” said Charles Ornstein, senior reporter at ProPublica. “I don’t think we’re in an era anymore in which journalists can say, ”We’ve analyzed the data, trust us.’ Today, many journalists devote attention not only to finding data for investigations, but to publishing it alongside living stories, or news apps. News applications are one of the most important new storytelling forms of this young millennium, native to digital media and, often, accessible across all browsers, devices, and operating systems on the open Web. ProPublica’s news app style guide lays out core principles for how they should be built and edited.49and newsroom analytics will be a core element of the way media organizations deliver information to mobile consumers and understand who, where, how, when, and perhaps even why they’ve become readers. Both will be a component of successful digital businesses. In this context, a news app primarily refers to an online application or interactive feature, as opposed to a mobile software application installed on a smartphone. At their best, news applications don’t just tell a story, they tell your story, personalizing the data to the user.50understand the world they’re moving through, from general topics like news, weather, and traffic, down to little league baseball scores. “I think news apps demand that you don’t just build something because you like it,” said Derek Willis. “You build it so that others might find it useful.”News apps help make sense of vast amounts of data for people who need to understand a complex subject but lack digital literacy in manipulating the raw data itself. For instance, ProPublica launched Treatment Tracker in May 2014, a news app based on the Medicare data released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services earlier in the year.51examined how doctors bill Medicare for office visits.52ProPublica’s data-driven analysis found that while health care professionals classified only 4 percent of the 200 million office visits for established Medicare patients in 2012 as sufficiently complex to earn the most expensive rates, some 1,800billed at the top rate 90 percent of the time.Charles Ornstein wrote in an email:This took some time. The data itself is big and complex. We interviewed experts to understand which comparisons would be most meaningful in the data. We looked for top-line numbers that could serve as easy benchmarks people could understand quickly. One was Medicare services per patient, another was payment per patient. We also took a careful look at intensity of established-patient office visits as a benchmark that would be interesting and easily understood by readers. Some specialties, like psychiatry and oncology, have, on average, much more intensive and costly office visits. But in many specialties where the typical such visit is less likely to be so intensive, doctors can vary widely from the mean. If you see that your doctor has a lot more or a lot fewer high-intensity visits than the average doctor like him/her, it doesn’t automatically mean there’s something wrong, but it’s one of the things worth having a conversation about.What sets our app apart is that it allows you to compare your doctor to others in the same specialty and state. While it may satisfy your curiosity to know how much money a doctor earns from Medicare, it tells you little. We think it’s more useful to look at how a doctor practices medicine (the services they perform, the percentage of patients who got them, and how often those patients got them). Our app gives you that information in context.You can easily spot which doctors appear way different using red notes and orange warning symbols. Again, it’s worth asking questions if your doctor (or other health provider) looks different than his/her colleagues.News apps can enable people to explore a data set in a way that a simple map, static infographic, or chart cannot. “There are ways to design data so that more important numbers are bigger and more prominent than less important details,” said Scott Klein. “People know to scroll down a Web page for more fine-grained details. At ProPublica, we design things to move readers through levels of abstraction from the most general, national case to the most local example.”Increasingly, the creators of news apps are focusing on user-centric design, a principle Brian Boyer, the editor of NPR’s Visuals team, explained: We don’t start with the data, or the technology. Everything we make starts with a user-centered design process. We talk about the users we want to speak to and the needs they have. Only then do we talk about what to make, and then we figure out how we’re going to do it. It’s tempting to start with technical choices or shiny ideas, but we try to stop ourselves and focus on what will work best for a specific group of people, the people who would most benefit from the data.It may be useful, therefore, to differentiate between the process and the product, as Susan McGregor has: News apps and data visualization generally describe a class of publishing formats, usually a combination of graphics (interactive or otherwise) and reader-accessible databases. Because these end products are typically driven by relatively substantial data sets, their development often shares processes with CAR, data journalism, and computational journalism. In theory, at least, the latter group is format agnostic, more concerned with the mechanisms of reporting than the form of the output.News apps “are great to tell stories, and localize your data, but we need more efforts to humanize data and explain data,” said Momi Peralta, of La Nación. She noted:[We should] make data sets famous, put them in the center of a conversation of experts first, and in the general public afterwards. If we report on data, and we open data while reporting, then others can reuse and build another layer of knowledge on top of it. There are risks, if you have the traditional business mindset, but in an open world there is more to win than to lose by opening up.This is not only a data revolution. It is an open innovation revolution around knowledge. Media must help open data, especially in countries with difficult access to information.This ethos, where both the data and the code behind a story are open to the public for examination, is one that I heard cited frequently from the foremost practitioners of data journalism around the world. In the same way that open source developers show their work when they push updated software to GitHub, data journalists are publishing updates to data sets that accompany narrative stories or news applications.This capability to publish data doesn’t change the underlying ethics or responsibility that journalists uphold: Not all data can or should be published in such work, particularly personally identifiable information or details that would expose whistleblowers or put the lives of sources at risk.Some of the data journalists interviewed expressed a clear preference for creating news apps that are Web-native, as opposed to an app developed for an iOS or Android device. If nonprofit or public media wish to serve all audiences, the thinking goes that means publishing in accessible ways that don’t require expensive, fast data plans or mobile devices. News apps based upon open source and open standards can be designed to work on multiple mobile platforms and are not subject to approval by a technology company to be listed on an app store.