“I’m something of an accidental data journalist,” admits James Ball on how he first entered the field of journalism. Accident or not, Ball has certainly been making a name for himself with his renowned reporting on both data and investigative stories at the internationally acclaimed British newspaper the Guardian.
Five years ago, when he was still at university, he had dabbled with temp jobs in Excel and Access that fit the criteria legendary journalist Heather Brooke was looking for in a new team member. Ball says that it was a great time and environment to start working in data journalism, since no UK papers had these types of reporters or teams, or frankly, “any idea they even wanted them.”
Ball spent two years working on a business magazine and writing for national papers before moving into a development producer role for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. That became the real beginning of his career as a data journalist; the bureau tackled Freedom of Information projects like an investigation that targeted the public sector pay and the infamous Iraq War Logs WikiLeaks project.
Later on, Ball was awarded the Laurence Stern Fellowship and spent four months at the Washington Post reporting on politics and national security. At the Guardian, he’s been “working on projects and investigations including the Guantanamo Files, Offshore Secrets (with ICIJ) and Reading the Riots.”
He says that he hopes to “fold more data journalism into anywhere it’s appropriate at the Guardian,” like in the paper’s news or fashion blogs. As a regular writer for the Guardian’s Datablog – edited by one of our previous interviewees, Simon Rogers – Ball calls the blog a “fantastic platform” that will grow alongside the ever-changing field of data visualization.
I love the versatility of working with numbers, the range of topics, and the ability to work independently and hold people to account with the cold, hard facts. Visualization is great fun because it’s all about working out the absolute best way to make information exciting.
One of his favorite graphics to work on – shown above – was what he describes as “huge” and looked at how the UK changed during Margaret Thatcher’s reign. A second favorite project was an interactive visualization based off of the London Riots that illuminated how unsubstantiated claims on Twitter could spread rumors like wildfire. Just as these visualizations do, Ball says that data is changing the way we inform the public today:
The good side is [that] visualization can make what would otherwise be dense and complex stories into really shareable, grabby, viral content. That’s something we all love… The danger is always oversimplification.
Ball says that of this danger, the worst is when a graphic distracts from the actual content, or otherwise “turns off people’s brains.” He’s most bothered by infographics that include inconsistent numbers and research – something, he says, that is easily avoidable.
Just within the next month, Ball will be releasing an infographics book with Valentina D’Efilippo titled “The Infographic History of the World.” The book will showcase his skills of developing concepts, organizing information, and merging interactivity and visualization together.