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Government data a boon for journalists

Written by Mitchell Smith

Image: Data Journalism – Creative Commons: mirkolorenzmustang (flickr.com)

Data journalism isn’t new, but ease of access to business and government information via the internet is opening up new possibilities for storytelling.

This week Queensland Premiere Campbell Newman has announced the appointment of a new ‘e-government’ minister, Gold Coast MP Ray Stevens, who will oversee a new website that provides access to state government data. The website is currently under construction but will be available at www.data.qld.gov.au. 

The move follows a recent trend whereby governments are engaging with the internet and journalists to provide greater public access to information. In 2010 the British Guardian predicted reporters would soon be inundated with a “tsunami” of data due to be released as part of the new conservative government’s Big Society agenda.

Guardian reporter Simon Rogers wrote in a subsequent article that, “two years on and data journalism is part of the fabric of what we, and many other news organisations do”.

In Australia journalists are following suit after the Declaration of Open Government in 2010 promised to deliver greater access to data.

Dr John Cokley, Associate Professor of Journalism at Swinburne University of Technology, says computers have “allowed journalists to compare lists of one kind of information against lists of other kinds of information and its when you compare lists, its when you make a comparison and relate one set of data to another that you find out new information.

“Lots of other people have databases that are interesting to us, such as for instance statisticians who put together facts and figures about our society, how many refugees there are, how many migrants there are, how many people under eighteen who are earning $25,000 a year or more, and those things are really useful for us as journalists to write stories about,” he said.

The website data.gov.au was created in response to the Government 2.0 taskforce and has seen a steady growth in the volume of information stored on the database.

The ABC’s Local Online lead developer Rae Allen has collaborated to provide data to the website and is enthusiastic about its potential: “It provides a new and diverse source of reliable information for journalists to use to create stories. It also helps keep government transparent which is always a good thing.”

“In general, we can expect to see governments release more and more data over time.”

In an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald in December last year Mark Textor warily pointed out that: “Too often, data journalists suddenly pretend to be experts. But a journalist is a not a mathematician or statistician. With data journalism that is exactly what they pretend to be.”

However with the growth of online databases reporters will have to start becoming adept in mathematics and statistics along with computer network systems, if they are to tap into this resource.

The website data.gov.au currently has 1,120 datasets, from 114 contributing agencies.




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