A national British newspaper with an international name across the web, the Guardian boasts an impressive fan-base, number of awards, and exceptionally talented staff. Simon Rogers is one of these individuals that make up its task force as an editor of its news section, Datablog, and Datastore. Among many journalism awards, Rogers was named the Best UK Internet Journalist by the Oxford Internet Institute in 2011 for his efforts to make data accessible and understandable by the general public.
Rogers’ first day editing for the Guardian was September 10, 2001, and he accurately describes the day – and subsequently, years – that followed as a time when “the world went crazy.” From this, he described his introduction into the field of journalism as:
just a lucky set of coincidences… I became this news editor [at the Guardian] working with graphics – which is an unusual job – so I was looking at data all the time, which is something I never thought I’d do. And it just kind of clicked.
His luck continued when Rogers launched DataBlog, which rose to popularity during a time when data was becoming important in the news and when it was really easy for everyone to understand. He credits tools like Google Fusion and Google Refine for allowing journalists and regular folk to do some of the work normally reserved for graphic designers. Making these things accessible to everyday folk is key in creating the interest that drives data journalism today.
The difference is that in the old days, it was reserved for the experts… Writing was not something that you or I would have gotten into as easily because it just wasn’t available.
One of the greatest pieces of advice that Rogers gives others is mastering your business’s skill to edit information and data down to the bare necessities. He said that in order to make things work correctly, you need to simplify everything for quick and efficient comprehension. Data visualization can help here, too, but he warned us about the dangers of relying too much on this, saying:
Visualization is lovely but I think it’s important to think – is there a story? That’s where they need to focus their efforts… Knowing it’s the right dataset is the most important thing to do… Without knowing what the story is, you’re just kind of producing numbers on their own.
In fact, the final point in his 10-Point Guide to Data Journalism reminds us that “It’s (still) about the stories,” and that at its’ core, data journalism is all about the flexibility to search for different ways to tell stories. And he praises data for doing just that – providing writers with a flexible format that can be presented as raw numbers or visually and still carry the same message.
In a 2012 Ted Talks Rogers gave, Data Journalists are the New Punks, Rogers discusses the importance of open journalism as becoming a two-way engagement with the reporter and the public. He described a data journalist’s job as being able to translate and interpret the numbers:
It’s for us to be a bridge between the people out there in the world who really want to understand the data, and the people who have the data and need explaining. We’re the people in between, and that’s our job; to help people get over that gap.
One of Rogers’ inspirations is Adrian Holovaty, who he credits as “a genius – the godfather of data journalism.” Two others include Fernanda Viegas and Martin M. Wattenberg, who together created one of the first data visualization tools on the market in 2007.
Still, Rogers recognizes the great strides that other data visualization pros around the world are doing to deliver interesting stories in an accessible and approachable way. Stay tuned for our next Spotlight Interview to hear what leaders of the data industry have to say about the way that numbers keep businesses afloat.