For many journalists the concept of 'data journalism' is a contradiction in terms

, Geert-Jan Bogaerts

During the third VPRO Medialab Meet Up at IDFA Doclab on November 21st, we explored stories in data: how can personal data be used (or abused) for the creation of a story? Geert-Jan Bogaerts, head Digitaal at VPRO, wrote an article on this Meet Up and the topic of data and storytelling.

From data as background to data as a story

One of the first tricks a novice journalist learns, is that you should construct your newspaper or TV story as if you are telling it to your mother or a friend at your kitchen table. So you don’t start by describing the entire background story, you get straight to the point. ‘There’s just been an accident on the village green. The cyclist wasn’t paying attention at all! Didn’t see the bus coming and crashed straight into it. Luckily just a few scratches – five minutes later he was drinking a beer. But his bike didn’t survive.’

Something like that. You do not start such a story with a dissertation about the layout of the village green or about the historic development of traffic flow in the neighbourhood. Journalists and producers have learned to begin with the news. Background comes later. As the adage goes; you should be able to ‘roll a story up from the bottom’. It stems from the days of the printed newspaper, when you were allocated a fixed number of words for the article you were writing. The editor in chief could then delete paragraphs from the bottom up in order to achieve the desired length.

For many journalists, the concept of ‘data journalism’ is thus almost a contradiction in terms; data lies beneath your story, it is your source but it is certainly not a story in its own right. The theme of the last VPRO Medialab Meet Up, ‘Stories in data’, last week at IDFA Doclab in Amsterdam, could therefore raise some serious questions. How do you tell a story with data?

Bregtje van der Haak - White Spots VR

Bregtje van der Haak - White Spots VR

Kyle McDonald - Wifi Whisperer

Kyle McDonald - Wifi Whisperer

Storytelling with personal data

Luckily there were several creators who presented wonderful examples. Of course our own production White Spots, whereby the data is formed by information over the wireless network that keep us connected with the internet. If you examine the data carefully, you can see that there are fewer and fewer places in the world where you can escape such a connection. And the interesting stories are all about the people in these places.

The VPRO is also involved with the production We Are Data, an installation that makes clear to the viewer just how much he reveals to his surroundings, whether consciously or subconsciously. His feelings and reactions can be measured against every external stimulus he is subjected to, and then turned into data that can be used commercially. It is a beautiful installation, but can only be viewed by one person at a time. This is why the VPRO Medialab, together with Studio Moniker, has devised an online alternative: on the website Clickclickclick.click you are, figuratively, stripped bare. But why explain it when you can try it for yourself!

Roel Wouters - clickclickclick.click

Roel Wouters - clickclickclick.click

Optimism on the feasibility of the world

Two other projects also clearly demonstrated that the traditional way in which journalists and media rooms tell their stories could really benefit from journalism based on data. We are still discovering the wealth of possibilities behind this; here is a nice selection.

Stories in data also clarified something else for me: the relentless optimism of designers, artists, inventors and media makers in the feasibility of the world. That alone can explain their curiosity in discovering new forms. This curiosity drives them further, and brings them further, and ultimately also enriches the consumer’s experience of all this beauty: you and I, time and time again discovering the new ways that a piece of this world works.