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Willis: Expand use of data you’re already collecting

March 27, 2010

By Brian Smith
Design chief, Iowa State Daily

Derek Willis, Web developer for The New York Times, challenged journalists to begin expanding their use of data during his workshop, “Data Strategy” at the Associated Press Managing Editor’s NewsTrain conference Friday in Arlington Heights, Ill.

Derek Willis. Photo by John Ryan

Willis’ workshop was part of the Evolving Journalist track at the workshop.

“[Data] is definitive, and if we want to strive for anything as journalists, I think we would want to strive for definitive,” Willis said.

To illustrate this point, Willis discussed the work of a physician and a priest helping to discover the cause of the cholera outbreak in London during the 1800s. The duo’s visits with the sick people helped them connect the dots back to a water pump. (See a copy of the map here)

The doctor and the priest were able to assemble a map and show that the deaths centered around this particular water pump.

Willis showed many examples of plotting data with maps. He said people can identify where they live on a map and it can help them relate to the data. Maps are a great way to help introduce data.

“It’s remarkable that in the gains that we have made technologically over the last 25 years, the fundamental concept of a map hasn’t changed,” Willis said.

Willis also challenged journalists to think about how much data they receive and do not utilize. Newspapers run wedding, birth, milestone and death announcements that contain wasted data.

When newspapers publish these announcements, they collect people’s names, ages, employers, former schools and hometowns. Willis said all of this information should be stored so that it can be utilized when a reporter is looking for sources.

Willis used the "Manning Meter" from the Indianapolis Star as an example of a good visual presentation of data. Click the thumbnail for a larger version.

Mining the data is important, but Willis said presenting it with quality graphics is just as important.

Willis explained that fellow Times staff member Shan Carter compares users of interactive graphics to Bart or Lisa Simpson.

Bart is going to look at a graphic quickly and Lisa will explore the graphic and seek out all of the data available.

He said the challenge for the graphic designers is to develop graphics that will appeal to both types of users.

Web sites are allowing newspapers to post more and more data online. Willis cautioned that newspapers need to provide meaning for the readers and not allow their Web sites to become a dumping ground for data.

“If you are just going to throw data on your users, don’t be surprised when they disappear,” Willis said. “If you don’t distinguish between what use is of value to your readers, then no data is of value.”

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