Facts are Sacred by Simon Rogers

Simon Rogers starts his book with a quote from C.P.Scott, first editor of the [Manchester] Guardian, from 1921;

“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

It is safe to say I have mainly been on the ‘comment’ side of that equation as far as how it relates to the web (particularly when you consider the Guardians own use of the term) but increasingly I find myself in the grip of a data driven world.

I have, I think, a pretty complicated relationship with ‘data’ on a professional level. I was a major supporter of the early ‘Free Our Data‘ campaign – I even once hired Mike Cross as a freelancer off the back of some writing he had done on the topic. Later though I got soured by what I felt at the time was the hijacking of the entire topic by the Semantic Web/Linked Data crowd – a subject still known to bring me out in hives to this day 🙂 Talk of RDF,SPARQL or ‘triples’ is one of the best ways to get me to leave a room for any of you who are ever bored of my company.

What I found refreshing about this book, and about the whole of ‘data journalism’ really, is how little any of that is mentioned. The tools of the trade seem to be Excel, a suite of free or cheap web tools and a lot of hard work and patience. I can appreciate that.

Probably not surprisingly the book is heavy on the Guardian influences. Despite being a regular reader I was still surprised at how much I had already engaged with to a pretty decent extent; Wikileaks, MP expenses, the Olympics and the Riots (as well as the Dr Who stuff) were all stories I knew well and had experienced the advantages of the data crunching (and had also followed those stories through to the background on the Datablog at the time.) I guess what is impressive is how mainstream and normal all this seemed in such a short period of time.

I enjoyed reading about some of the history of pre-computing data journalism – the mentions of Florence Nightingale, the Detroit riots in ’67 and the data based story in the first ever Guardian give the whole thing a nice grounding in the past.

There were a lot of nuggets of interest to my current job – one of my favourites was this one early on;

“Data journalism is not graphics and visualisations. It’s about telling the story in the best way possible.”

This is something I am keen to reinforce – not every number needs an infographic.

My favourite section of the book is actually not written by Rogers but by Jonathan Gray of the Open Knowledge Foundation. His chapter, 9, is titled ‘The new punk’ (though I’m not sure about that title.) Gray puts data work in a wider context and makes clear that getting the data is just the beginning and that a lot of work is needed to add the value.

***an update from Jonathan himself 16/05/2013 “Just to clarify, only the section titled “What data can and cannot do” is mine, the rest of “The new punk” section (including the title) is not mine.”**

“Open information about government is not the same as open government, participatory government or good government”.

He also expands in more detail the point that data journalism isn’t be default graphics. In a section too long to type out here 🙂 Gray makes it clear that data “[..is] the ultimate in flexible formats.” He also goes on to make the point that “simplicity and brevity are huge strengths in visual communication.”

I found the book a genuinely interesting read and a really useful grounding in the realities of data journalism at the moment and with a great deal of practical insights, snippets and leads that are going to make my education in this space.

I’ll finish with a quote from the final chapter about my current employers;

“It should be pointed out that the ONS has incredible information on [it’s] site – but it is also the world’s worst website.”

I’d hate to be the guy who has to…oh. Right. Oh well 🙂

4 responses to “Facts are Sacred by Simon Rogers”

  1. Just to clarify, only the section titled “What data can and cannot do” is mine, the rest of “The new punk” section (including the title) is not mine. 😉

    The original article is here (I hadn’t previously realised it was reproduced in the Facts are Sacred book): http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/may/31/data-journalism-focused-critical

    Do you think you could update your post to make this clear, so others don’t make the same mistake and attribute the subsequent section to me?

  2. Will do – I think it might be a failing of the Kindle version I have – it was a bit unclear but I should have noticed.

%d bloggers like this: