Amro Al Iraqi: Data Journalism is equally important for the reader as it is for the newsroom

Any available data that can be mined to manufacture a journalistic story is special, from education to cinema tickets

Over many years, journalist and trainer Amro Al Iraqi has dedicated most of his time to preach about data journalism, highlight its importance, and train hundreds of young journalists in the Arab region on how to implement it. He has provided tens of samples of data-driven journalistic content. Al Iraqi is currently the manager of InfoTimes, a company and website specialized in developing and training in data journalism and which received an award for best journalistic team for a small newsroom by the Global Editors Network (GEN) in 2018. Ehab Zelaky talked to Amro Al Iraqi about the importance of data journalism in this modern era and the pathway for a journalist to start working in this domain.

What’s the importance of data journalism?
The importance of data journalism is multilateral: the first being the essential role that journalism plays in society, be it through news, entertainment, analysis or opinion pieces. The second aspect is related to the importance of data journalism itself, especially with audiences that follow in-depth analysis and facts searching. We can say that a large portion of audiences are now interested in searching for in-depth pieces; those are journalistic stories that provide information in an attractive manner while enriching the subject and unveiling new dimensions of the journalistic story. Hence, the importance of data journalism lies in its significance and attractiveness to audiences. In addition, data journalism is crucial for newsrooms and their abilities to compete through providing content that is both intriguing and attractive and that provide analytic or detailed information. I believe that data journalism can be a factor in the success of the work models at organizations that adopt policies of pay per view, or subscriptions. Thus, data journalism is as important for readers as it is for newsrooms to find sources of income and sustainability.

Why did data journalism become more popular recently?
We live in a digital age with a flood of easily accessible data all around us. Data is now produced momentarily and in large quantities thanks to the technological revolution, the development of the internet and the rise of social media and new types of non-traditional data that is now shared instantly and in massive amounts. If we track the history of leaks, from wikileaks, through the Panama papers and beyond, we will find a huge amount of data, ranging from gigabytes to terabytes. So, journalists have now an enormous amount of data, even when it comes to leaks. With these quantities of data, society needs journalists to analyse it, reveal what’s behind it, and provide explanations to it, especially that the ability of people to understand this amount of data varies, and some readers are just looking for brief summaries. The ‘ugly’ tabulated forms of this data may not be appealing to people who are not usually interested in viewing databases but are curious to know the ramifications of this data and its influence on their choices, work and lives.

Are there specific subjects and issues that data journalism is successful at?
Data journalism helped in the rise of new topics such as data science. Naturally, journalism is a profession that is closely tied to technology and has reacted to its development especially in the scope of data. Data processing no longer requires specialized skills; on the contrary, it is easy to learn and acquire the required skills to interact with data, especially now that a journalist interacts constantly with computers.

The recent surge in data journalism is due to journalists seeking to be outstanding by producing pieces that would strike a chord in society and compete for awards that would be added to their professional accomplishments. Moreover, some organizations are attempting to compete with others through the quality of content they provide and using the raw data available in all sectors of life such as art, sports and economy which can be used for all journalistic topics. 

Data journalism has become more significant; we only have to look at the Covid-19 pandemic for example, where the average citizen is interested in following the number of Covid-19 cases, the death toll, the number of hospital beds available, and the doctor to patient ratio. Different countries around the World are researching the pandemic using a data-based angle. We recently started looking at the basic things in our daily lives through a data perspective; for example, if we decide to travel for a vacation, we tend to check the best travel days according to the temperature degrees, choose travel agencies according to the lowest prices and the most perks. Decisions in life are being made using data. 

There are no specific subjects that data journalism tackles, because data is connected to all aspects of life. You can produce an article supported with data about education, cinemas, prices of transportation, road accidents, employee wages in the private sector, etc. Any available data can be mined and used to create a unique journalistic story.

What are the essential requirements for data journalism?
In addition to the technical component, the basis of data journalism is journalism; which means that you can’t only have data mining skills, you also need to be a talented journalist who has expertise in the journalistic field, able to pitch ideas, formulate hypotheses, contact sources, and ask the right questions to get access to the data and then follow it up with more inquiries around it.

So, you need to be a very good journalist in the first place, with years of experience in the field. After this comes the skills of data processing and knowing how to perform accurate statistical operations to validate its accuracy. This is because some analysis procedures might corrupt the data, like dealing with repeated or missing entries inside databases, or calculating averages with extreme entries. Thus, it is vital to know the basics of data processing like statistical analysis or using various analysis programs.

Storytelling is also an equally important skill because this is what you will use to display these stories to the audience. A common mistake is to put too much attention to the visuals and to limit data journalism to the images and graphic designs, but I assure you that, if there is no story behind these numbers, and if there is no data, then the image would be a piece of art but it won’t be a data-driven story.

Where can those who wish to learn data journalism start?
At first it would be through reading the available Arabic and foreign sources and learning how to build a story and present it to an audience as well as the methodology of developing a story and how to look at raw data. They would have to study the pieces that have won awards like the Global Editors Network’s International Award for Data Journalism or the similar version that is currently being awarded by Sigma which specializes in data journalism. These pieces will give the journalist an idea about previous work models and the feasibility of conducting similar work that suits our environment.

I believe that reviewing previous work is an important starting point because people write what they read. And in order to improve your journalistic style, you must read a lot to be able to formulate sentences better and present content in a more attractive manner.

Implementation is as well a learning curve because during implementation you discover the various issues and gain the tools needed to tackle those issues. Data journalism is ever-evolving and regenerating as a result of its connection to two fast-changing factors: Data and technology. Data varies in size, type and method of archiving from one story to another, so there can be no one book that can include all the data journalism skills from beginning to end.

What are the most prominent sources for learning data journalism, particularly in the Arab region?
There is a guide translated by Al Jazeera institute, and another one issued by “Journalism for Human Rights” JHR, and both are available online for free. There are also trainings that are delivered by Advocacy Assembly in three languages: Arabic, English and Farsi. Over the years, I have participated as an instructor in many training events with the World Bank, including a training focused on data journalism literacy over several weeks or months. This training was delivered in Iraq and Jordan. Another interesting program is the six-month long diploma for data journalism offered in collaboration with ARIJ and the International Center for Journalists (ICJ) as well as the School of Data website which provides different trainings on handling data.

You are the head of InfoTimes which specializes in data journalism. What are the most notable subjects you’ve worked on?
InfoTimes is initially a service provider, not a publisher. Hence, the number of stories we’ve produced are relatively limited and we can consider them just a sample of content; but most of our work has been to provide services to media and investigative organisations, such as Yahoo, Akhbar Alyoum, the Jordanian News Agency, and the Center for Alternative Solutions in the American University. The most notable stories we’ve produced have been the product of training sessions with ARIJ, such as: the gender gap in governmental sport centers in Egypt produced by Hajar Hashem; the story produced in collaboration with the Masrawi about the “Blood Speeches” that aimed to analyse the speeches of the former Al Qaeda chief produced by Mahmoud Altabbakh; “The Koshari” story that reflected the depth of inflation of prices in Egypt over the past ten years; in addition to the story analysing hate speech against Syrians in Lebanon, and the one highlighting women in leadership positions in universities across the Arab world. We’ve also published an analysis of the decisions of Egyptian president Abd El Fatah El Sisi in his first term and all the decisions he’s taken through a statistical analysis categorizing each decision as political or economic; as well as a story about the increase of coasts in coastal areas versus the land areas in some cities and governates in Egypt. Finally, we published a story analysing Twitter hashtags and the fake accounts behind them.

To learn more about data journalism:

Some data journalism samples:

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