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With in-article chat bots, BBC is experimenting with new ways to introduce readers to complex topics
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Jan. 22, 2018, 10:28 a.m.
Reporting & Production

A network of news outlets and data agencies wants to unlock untold data stories across Europe

Data-driven news stories produced by members of the European Data Journalism Network are translated into English, French, German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish and then made available for free to all partner and non-partner news organizations.

Collaboration and data journalism suit each other. All that’s needed to make things work is time — a lot of it.

Stretching data stories across borders and languages is a feat of processes, and the European Data Journalism Network is hoping it’s ironed out the right ones. On board are 15 official partners, with news outlets like Germany’s Spiegel Online, Netherlands’ NRC Handelsblad, and Spain’s El Confidencial, as well as European data journalism and visualization agencies such as Journalism++ and LocalFocus. The think tank Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (specializing in the policy issues of Southeast Europe, Turkey, and the Caucasus region) and the multilingual nonprofit news site VoxEurop are organizing the initiative and shepherding data stories, in what the coordinators call a mostly “bottom-up” approach.

“We really do believe that being part of the EU gives our societies the opportunity to compare with one another on how effective a given policy is, how specific social phenomena are spreading. And then through comparison, improve the debate, and maybe even the policies,” said Chiara Sighele, the project’s director at OBC Transeuropa, who helps run the network. The organization OBC Transeuropa includes a media arm that publishes relevant data stories to the EDJNet platform (for instance: “The number of asylum requests from Turkey has tripled over the last two years”). “We saw the project as an opportunity to improve our capacity to cover journalism on European affairs in a meaningful way, with meaningful partners. It’s also a way to take advantage of all this open data, to make the best out of these comparisons, and maybe contribute to the development of a culture of public debate based on facts and data.”

It’s a pretty grand hope. EDJNet is so far only in its fourth official month of a three-year grant period. It’s funded through the European Commission, with €975,000 (USD $1.2 million) to distribute to the two main coordinators OBC Transeuropa and VoxEurop, and the other partners in the network. Those two collaborators get the largest share of the funding, followed by Alternatives Economiques, which is producing more stories than other partners.

(The full European Commission grant is for €1.95 million, shared equally between the EDJNet initiative and another collaborative news hub spearheaded by news agencies Agence France-Presse, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata, called the European Data News Hub. That hub has been publishing since the summer and also makes news spots and multimedia pieces in multiple languages available for all news organization to use, though its materials aren’t all data-driven stories.)

Participating news organizations can seek out datasets for themselves, run their own analyses, do their own reporting, and publish the resulting stories on their own platforms in the original language of their outlets. VoxEurop then handles making sure stories are translated, along with accompanying charts and graphs and other visualizations, into English, French, German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish. Editorial operations are conducted over an EDJNet Slack. All published stories are then freely available to partner or non-partner organizations.

Stories appearing as part of the network, whether short hits or more in depth features, must have solid data sets as their backbone, and use a Europe-wide lens on political and socioeconomic changes in the region: a comparison of xenophobia in European cities (“despite the growing influence of racist movements, xenophobia is not generally on the increase”), for instance, or the political decline of social democrats across Europe (“its vote share has fallen in 15 of the 17 countries we examined”). Its graphics are visually plain, intentionally so, since they all need to be individually translated, and need to work on mobile and potentially live on many different organizations’ sites.

As it builds up a story base and improves tools, the EDJNet team is open to any new interested partners. One priority is to add a news partner from every EU country. The work of collaborating is itself also a useful exercise, Gian-Paolo Accardo, VoxEurop’s editor-in-chief who also coordinates EDJNet, told me.

“We strongly believe collaboration is the future of journalism,” Accardo said. “There are examples around us of more and more collaborative networks that are working just fine — ICIJ being one of the best. As resources get thinner and thinner over time for newsrooms, it would be better for us to collaborate, especially if you’re not operating in the same markets.”

The team is planning to roll out data journalism tools for the wider community, including a quote finder that will conduct sentiment analysis and a virtual help desk run by OBC Transeuropa to field questions from journalists around software or statistical methodology, something along the lines of the NICAR email list or the Data Journalism Awards Slack run through the Global Editors Network (GEN has also teased the launch of its Data Journalism Den next month, intended to be a global community for people working in data journalism and related fields). It’s also preparing for a couple of longer-term, collaborative investigations, as well as more shareable video offerings.

A feature called Stats Monitor, built by the Swedish Journalism++ and Netherlands startup LocalFocus, is rolling out soon on the EDJNet platform. The tool hooks into the API of European Commission’s database of stats about Europe — packed with datasets but not wholly user friendly — and alerts the network Slack group about relevant trends or changes to data in case a partner news outlet would like to write a story. Roughly 15 to 20 percent of EDJNet’s stories so far are based on original datasets compiled by partners, Accardo estimated; data mined from the Eurostat portal has been the primary resource.

Organizers are simultaneously tackling that perennial question of a feasible business model. How can the network pay for the time-consuming work of coordinating a dozen-plus news outlets, accurately translating everything into multiple languages, preparing data sets and stories, and maintaining tools like the Stats Monitor and the help desk, beyond the initial three-year period supported by the grant? Paid subscriptions for access to various features are likely. Accardo said he couldn’t reveal details yet, but that the team had been drawing up ideas for financial sustainability from the start.

“There’s the sustainability question. I would also say a medium-term goal is skill building: journalists who are now working on data who were not data journalists in the first place,” Accardo said. “Another is network building: we have brought newsrooms and journalists who are not used to working together, across languages and borders, to work together in a collaborative, not competitive, way.”

“We’re still in the first year, and there will be two intense more years ahead of us,” Sighele said.

Image of MEPs voting in Brussels, copyright European Union 2011 PE-EP/Pietro Naj-Oleari, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 22, 2018, 10:28 a.m.
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