Data journalism: A simple tip to get started

As a young reporter, I went to a National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in 1998. I’ll admit that I found the pivot tables in Excel of 1998 a bit daunting. A lot has changed since then, and when I do data journalism training now, one of the things that I stress is how the tools have gotten so much easier, especially in the last few years. Even pivot tables, which can be hard to wrap your head around, are really simple in Google spreadsheets and the current versions of Excel. With Google Drive (Docs), almost any journalist can be trained to produce simple graphs and charts in a day.

Aron Pilhofer, the Interactive News editor at the New York Times, has put it this way:

I teach and have taught for years basic computer-assisted reporting and I do it in this one-day class. Nobody believes me, but it’s totally true: In one day – ONE DAY – we can teach you the skills that if mastered would allow you to do 80 percent of all the computer-assisted reporting that has ever been done. This is importing a spreadsheet, doing some basic math, knowing what a sum is, what a mode, a median, what an average is. I mean, being able to take a dataset, to do some basic count. I mean, this is not rocket science, for the most part.

I did data journalism back in the 1990s when it was called computer-assisted reporting (CAR) in the US, and it was only when Simon Rogers launched The Guardian data blog after one of our internal hack days, that I got a chance to return to it. Thanks Simon.

And I was reminded of how easy it is to get your start again today with an interview by WAN-IFRA with Steve Doig, truly one of the CAR pioneers. What does he use for data journalism?

His toolbox has five items: a web browser, ability to access public records, Excel, in rare cases a heavier programme such as Microsoft Access to bring different tables together and a geo mapping tool.

Those are tools that most journalists use every day, apart from Access, and it really is that easy for you to dip your toe into data journalism. To be honest, I haven’t used Microsoft Access in years, and you can do most things just by using Excel, Google spreadsheets or Google’s Fusion Tables.

As a matter of fact, here’s one tip to get you going. If you want to find the sum, average or count of a column of numbers in Google spreadsheets, simply highlight the column of numbers and look in the lower right hand corner. You’ll see a small box. Click on it, and you’ll see a summary of the biggest number (max), smallest number (min), the average and  the number of numbers (count numbers) or of words (count). It’s that easy. You can start right now.


It’s just a simple little feature, but over time, it can be a huge time saver. Of course, sometimes this quick little summary won’t be the end of the process but just the beginning. However, it’s the first step in interrogating data. Sometimes it will give you the answer you’re looking for, and other times, it will uncover a key question for your story, and that’s when data journalism really gets exciting.