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April 24, 2013, 11:58 a.m.

Reuters bets big on context, structure and dataviz to understand power in China

Connected China is an experiment in breaking out of the incremental story — trying to create a summative, regularly updated visualization of who leads China.

xi-jinping-china-visit-cc

To understand how politics works in China, you have to understand guanxi: the web of interpersonal relationships, alliances, and influence underlying the one-party system. The best way to see how this works is Connected China.

Built over 18 months by a team of reporters and researchers in Hong Kong and Fathom Design in Boston, the app provides tools to understand the social and institutional power of China’s elite, career comparisons for current and past leaders, featured stories, and essential background on the country. It’s a context-first effort to catalog, organize, and visualize everything Reuters knows about power in the People’s Republic. What emerges is something radically different from news as we know it: The app focuses almost entirely on telling you how power is structured today, and how players are connected. The iPad-focused design has an exploratory feel, and the visualizations are striking.

“We want to show how institutions connect to each other, and that the Party is the most powerful,” said Irene Jay Liu, the project’s lead editor.

In March, Xi Jinping officially became China’s president, succeeding Hu Jintao in a cascade of change throughout the country’s government and the ruling Communist Party. This cadre of leaders will set the direction of the People’s Republic for the next decade. Xi’s path to power followed a route nearly parallel to that of his predecessor. Here’s how Connected China describes their ascents:

connected-china-xi-rise

The team started by cataloguing everyone in the Chinese leadership, and how each person attained their current post. “We knew how people move through the party and the military,” Liu said. “We tend to use certain types of terms to describe relationships.” Words like “promoted,” “personal assistant,” “chief of staff,” “apprentice,” “protege,” or “mentor” connote relationships that can be tracked in the database.

“The benefit of having a small team that started from the beginning is we’d spend hours and hours talking about these relationships,” Liu added.

One of the site’s most important features isn’t technical at all: It’s the newsroom’s commitment to maintain Connected China’s underlying database. This is surprisingly rare among news applications — especially those tied to print publishing cycles, where interactive apps tend to be snapshots of giant datasets that illustrate a story but don’t change the underlying reporting process. Reg Chua, editor of data and innovation at Thomson Reuters, wrote about this on his personal blog:

The Washington Post’s analysis of a decade of homicides in the capital is great work. But while it provided a great picture of what had happened before 2011, it wasn’t set up to let readers figure out how things might have changed in the last year or so — arguably equally relevant and important information to current residents of D.C.

One of Chua’s goals in the project is to make sure Connected China fits into Reuters’ ongoing reporting, and that the structured approach behind the app flows back into the newsroom. The newswire has around 100 people in China, including a number of researchers who don’t speak English. Chua hopes Connected China’s database will let Reuters’ tap that pool of ground-level knowledge in a way that lasts longer than any story will.

It’s an effort to turn daily reporting into structured, reusable data. “It’s a hard thing to try and sell in a newsroom,” Chua told me, “because it requires both technology work and it also requires a mindset change in journalists.”

In part, Connected China works at Reuters because company is already in the business of organizing data through its Content Marketplace, and Liu said it was important that Connected China be interoperable with other Reuters datasets. “It provided some structure for what we were trying to do from the very beginning,” Liu said.

Connected China is focused on showing the world as it is. And while the information in its underlying database will change, it’s core promise is that what it shows is accurate and up-to-date — a picture of China’s leadership right now. To borrow from Robin Sloan, it’s almost all stock, with little flow.

The tradeoff for any likeminded product is usability. It’s hard to see when something has changed on Connected China; the app always loads to the same front page. I want Connected China, and the editorial team behind it, to give me new reasons to dig into this database. There’s a lot to find once I’m in, but I need to be reminded to look, and the atomized structure of the news headline — Breaking: This Just Happened In Beijing — does a great job of being that reminder.

When I spoke with Liu and Chua, they said that they’re encouraged by the amount of time visitors are spending within the app, but they’re also watching how people use it with an eye toward what should change. “I think this is different enough that it wouldn’t have been clear what the audience reaction would be and how people would use it,” Chua said. “We want to see how people react to it and I think that will help steer it.”

Photo of Xi Jinping (right foreground) visiting Los Angeles by David Starkopf/Office of Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 24, 2013, 11:58 a.m.
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