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A new breed of journalist

With the growing prevalence of data available, a new breed of journalist is emerging, the “data journalist”.  Harkanwal Singh, a journalist at the New Zealand Herald, describes data journalism as being the “same as traditional journalism except in one aspect. The gathering, interviewing and presenting is all centred around data”. He goes on to describe the process as revolving around unfettered access to raw data, which “allows for the exploratory analysis for various newsworthy questions”.

Data journalism still requires the traditional journalism skillset, but also needs a suite of new skills around understanding and interpreting data. The journalism arm of the industry training organisation, Competenz, has recognised this and begun the process of implementing new NZQA unit standards for journalism schools. The initial focus is on up-skilling students in statistics, and there are plans to develop a further "Data Journalism" unit standard encompassing a wider range of data skills.

NCEA: Stimulating debate and new insights

On the 17th of February 2014, the Herald published an article by Audrey Young highlighting the rise in the percentage of students leaving school with NCEA Level 2 or above.

On the 22nd of February, an article by Nicholas Jones and Harkanwal Singh was released on the NZ Herald website. Data was obtained through Jones lodging an Official Information Act request. The data enabled Singh to develop an interactive visualisation that allows the reader to explore for themselves the relationship between assessment type, subjects and the decile rating of the schools attended by students. Discussion and opinions from various stakeholders follow the visualisation, exploring the effectiveness of internal assessments versus external assessments.

On the 25th of February, a follow up article by Nicholas Jones revealed further debate on the value of internal assessment over external assessment.

On the 6th of March, Graham Jenson, a software developer and data analyst, published a blog on maori.geek.nz. Jenson reveals in his blog that the Herald’s interactive visualisation inspired him to have a go at a visualisation of his own. When asked what it was about the NZ Herald article that inspired him, Jenson replies “I am interested in the domain of education, and visualisation. I found the article a great example of backing up assumptions with data, and letting the reader also explore your data. I had just a different set of questions than what the article set about answering, and I wanted to explore those questions”.

Those questions were around whether being rich or poor really made a difference to educational achievement. Using the same dataset behind the Herald visualisation, Jenson analysed the data with his own questions in mind.

“I have had a privileged life and attended decile 10 schools for most of it. The idea that I had it ‘better off’ is not a new one, but how much of an advantage did I get has always been an interesting question to me. There are many articles that compare New Zealand to other countries in literacy, numeracy, tertiary study and graduation, but very few articles that compare the numbers within different parts of New Zealand society. Just saying that our education system favours better off students will get a general consensus, but having numbers to back up the claim and an effective visualisation will hopefully start an informed conversation”, says Jenson.

On the 26th of May, Benjamin Riley, an education specialist presently in New Zealand as an Ian Axford fellow, blogged further discussion. He referred to the Herald’s visualisation showing a significant gap between internal and external assessment in lower decile schools, and he questions the quality and consistency of internal assessment across the deciles. A significant issue which he understands the Ministry of Education and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority are looking into.

How important is open data?

Singh believes that without open data there is no data journalism. It is crucial in providing validity beyond opinion. “If we cannot provide news that is valid beyond opinion then we lose ground on policy reporting for readers”, says Singh.

Jenson’s view is very similar, saying “the easier the data is to use the easier it is for everyone to inspect and see if the government's policies are based on real information. I think that having good data, interesting and straight forward, will lead to more informed debate about issues that New Zealanders care about”.

What other data is wanted?

Both Jenson and Singh would use other high value public data, particularly geo-coded crime data, seeing the potential for developing tools and stories that could help increase public safety. Singh would also like to see clean, reusable data from Parliament.

Transparency and Social Impacts

The re-use of the NCEA dataset has brought debate into the public domain around education policies. The same dataset has consequently been re-used again to answer different questions, resulting in new insights (or verifying perceptions). As a result the journalists and blogger, the people they have interviewed, and all the readers who have read their articles have been a little more involved in the process of steering the future of the education policies that affect all their lives.

The proactive release of data combined with data journalism has to potential to better inform the public by making the factual data more understandable, and provoking more debate on policies in the public domain. It is one way to rouse participation by the citizens of New Zealand in the democracy that governs them. Ultimately this public debate could lead to better social and economic outcomes for New Zealand.

3 June 2014       opendata@linz.govt.nz

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