"Do Information Architects have a role in datajournalism?" debate on SIGIA-L

 by Martin Belam, 10 January 2011

There has been a recent thread on the SIGIA-L mailing list featuring Eric Scheid and Stephen Collins asking about "the role of IAs in Data Journalism"

Eric opened by pointing out that the discipline of datajournalism involves "massive amounts of data, various forms of taxonomies and indices, various degrees of data purity" and "sounds like the kind of thing IAs get involved in".

"And yet", he adds, "there's nary any discussion of datajournalism in the various IA venues. My question is what role can IAs have in these activities?".

Stephen thought it was definitely something IAs should involve themselves with: "I believe there's unrealised potential for IAs (especially those of us with interests and expertise in taxonomy, folksonomy and ontology) to help with datajournalism. More than anything, the IA's capacity to take large buckets of data and identify and expose structure and themes in that data is, I think, somewhere we can add value."

Eric has identified three key areas where IAs could help by working alongside journalists:

  1. helping the original publishing of the data
  2. helping journalists etc process third party data
  3. helping to publish those stories, ie. making web sites

Of those areas, he thinks:

"We've traditionally been involved in (3), especially alongside interaction designers (who do the bulk of the design of the story widgets). We've always had the opportunity to do (1) but few websites provide a data API (our focus has been on individual users accessing the content). Area (2) is a new area for most of us."

In the thread, between the two of them, they cited the Guardian's work with Wikileaks data and MPs Expenses amongst other things, thus making it inevitable I would have to join in with some kind of comment myself. I haven't particularly been involved directly with analysing any data for journalistic purposes, although I do generally get some oversight of tools like the COINS explorer or MPs expenses tool before they go live. This has chiefly been in an advisory capacity, where I'm most likely to point out one or two tweaks to the interface that will improve usability, than raise huge issues about the structure of the data.

Where I've had more impact is in thinking about the way that users can find and explore data sets for themselves, and I've previously blogged for guardian.co.uk about the information architecture behind the World Government Data store.

A lot of journalists are only just getting used to having to work alongside computer programmers - let alone the more esoteric digital disciplines like information architecture or user experience. And of course, when you start to meld some disciplines together, there is the potential for conflict. Stephen Collins said on SIGIA-L:

"Naturally, there will be a turf war at some point and manifold invocations of Godwin's Law as the arguments about who is best suited take place. I'll be avoiding those and just driving away at doing good work."

He makes a good point.

In the end though, for me, job titles are unimportant - it is all about having the skillset of organising information, the willingness to collaborate, and the ability to empathise with the end user or reader. Journalists show that empathy when they synthesize complex stories in a way that their readers can understand. Information architects show that empathy when they arrange complex information structures in a way that users can easily comprehend, navigate, and find what they want. They can definitely be a natural fit for datajournalism purposes.


On Twitter, the BBC's Jon Jacob immediately chipped in with: "I can think of a number of people who would shout 'No'", to which I mostly agree. As I replied to him: "I suspect I'd mostly be an extra cook at the actual journalism stage..."

It's true that bringing people from 2 different worlds together(like programmers and journalists) can lead to conflict. From my personal experience though, there is a huge opportunity for both parties to learn a lot from each other when this happens. I know this sounds cliche but I thought it had to be mentionned. The programmer and the journalist see things completely differently and they can often complement each other in a positive way when they collaborate. I'm always interested in working with people that are in different fields because the results are always interesting. There is no doubt though that conflicts can happen.

I am wondering if JJ is thinking of one of the people I am? I can hear 'NO!' - quite loudly in an educated Yorkshire accent. In which case it's ironic that this person has spent the last 5 years in the company of IAs, geeks and designers, learning as much as he can :)

Everything has intermixed in the world. And this conflict between IA and datajournalists isn't the first one. Today each specialist has to know not only his/her own field bbut also to have skill of others. May be it's not good as one can't be a specialist in everything, so I offer to leave the piece of work to those who know better about it.

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