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Have you been looking for a way to stand out in a crowded Web with completely original content–and hit a brick wall?
Whether you’re a content marketer, blogger, editor or entrepreneur, you’re probably well-acquainted with the importance of creating content that is both visually impacting and full of useful, shareable information that is not easily found elsewhere.
The trouble is that this is becoming harder by the second.
With all the clamoring for attention on the Web, the process of creating a piece of content that cuts through all the noise can be extremely challenging–if not seemingly impossible at times.
The truth is that in this age of information overload, we don’t need to learn how to find new data, but how to process and present what’s already out there in innovative ways. This has a name and it’s called data journalism. It simply refers to the process of finding stories in large quantities of data.
While this may sound like something that requires years of training–especially to create all those impressive infographics and data visualizations–it’s actually such a new development within journalism that journalists themselves are learning as they go.
In fact, with the movement of citizen journalism, data journalism skills can now be acquired by any person to keep tabs on their government or disseminate their own news. This is all the more reason for those eager to differentiate themselves from the competition to acquire these skills.
To guide you on your path to developing high-quality content that is a cut above the rest, we’ve outlined some key steps to follow in the creation of original, data-driven content, as well as a list of resources and sites you can resort to in the process.
Although you should have a basic understanding of percentages, averages, ratios and rates, to begin with, you don’t have to be a math genius to create your first piece of compelling data-driven content.
You will need, however, to familiarize yourself with Excel and Google Spreadsheets. To wet your feet, start with this free and easy-to-use Excel tutorial and focus specifically on the sections on Pivot tables and sorting, aggregating and filtering data.
One of the most challenging parts of creating a data-drive piece is finding usable information. To start, consult these three different sources of data:
Transparency and easier public access to information is a worldwide trend that is here to stay. The digital era has empowered the masses through the release of once-confidential information, and journalists and non-journalists alike should make use of the abundant information that is already on the Web.
To find it, however, you have to know where and how to look.
Google’s advanced search, for example, allows you to narrow your results by specifying a domain extension (such as .gov or .edu) and a file format (such as XLS or CSV). You can also search for part of the URL, as in the case of googling “inurl:downloads filetype:xls,” which enables you to see all Excel files that have the word “download” in their Web address.
Since countries all over the world are emulating the transparency initiatives of the American and British governments, which have their own data portals (data.gov, fedstats.sites.usa.gov and data.gov.uk), there is also a lot of information comparable across nations that can be reused by businesses and citizens.
A comprehensive list of open data portals from all over the world can be found at dataportals.org. If you want to make international comparisons, you can also visit Gapminder and the data portals of the World Bank and the United Nations.
“Evidence suggests that data journalism is the journalism of the future” – Sandra Crucianelli
For very specific queries, you can consult the Web page of the pertinent authority. For example, for immigration statistics, you can consult dhs.gov; for a college navigator, go to nces.ed.gov; for labor statistics, there’s bls.gov; for environmental data, visit epa.gov.
There are also sites that collate data from a variety of organizations, such as Google Public Data Explorer, Data Hub and Freebase. You can also find databases that aggregate research data, such as the UK Data Archive and clinicaltrials.gov.
But what if the information you’re looking for isn’t on the Web? There are two other options you can try:
You can compile your own data by conducting informal surveys using Google Forms (see tutorial here) or using information from your organization’s own internal database.
While these may be more time-consuming alternatives, they will be well worth your time if they can give you unique insight into your industry.
A third option is to present a Freedom of Information request, which can be used to access records from any federal agency. The drawback is that these types of requests may take several weeks to process, depending on the agency and the complexity of the request presented.
The key to an expedited response, however, is to demonstrate that you know your rights–citing if necessary the Freedom of Information Act–and to present a request that is as specific and detailed as possible, using technical jargon if required, to save time.
Once you have the data you need to answer your initial question or to support the point you want to make, you can now convert the data into a format you can work with.
Since you need to import data into an Excel or Google spreadsheet, you’ll want to–whenever possible–download data in CSV format (comma separated value). There are times, however, that you’ll find a chart or graph in a PDF file, in which case you’ll need to insert this data into Excel using a converter, such as Zamzar, Import.io, Tabula or ScraperWiki. Other times, you may also find useful information as an image, in which case you can use optical character recognition software, such as Free Ocr.
Now that you have your information in Excel format, you need to clean it up to eliminate inconsistencies and information you don’t need.
For small tasks, information can be cleaned up directly in the spreadsheet, but for larger tasks, a very useful tool is OpenRefine (formerly Google Refine). Here, you can make data consistent, delete duplicate information (make sure you always work with a copy of the original data file) and even merge data sets. More sophisticated uses for this tool can also be found in this helpful tutorial.
Once your data has been edited and reformatted to suit your purposes, you can start processing the information using the spreadsheet skills mentioned above, such as sorting, filtering and aggregating. For example, you can sort data in ascending or descending order in terms of size or by location; you can calculate and compare means; you can also compare two data sets.
The idea is to analyze your data to find the story and “interview” the information, just as you would any other source. By asking many questions, you will obtain various interpretations of the same data instead of simply sticking with your first reading.
Now, here comes the fun part: using data visualizations and infographics to present your findings in a visually appealing and easy-to-understand format. Depending on the type of story you’re working on, you could use a range of visualization tools, from maps and diagrams to interactive charts and network graphs.
For local or national stories on geographic trends, you can use interactive mapping tools such as Google Fusion Tables (which allows you to make maps with several layers), Indiemapper, Geocommons and ChartsBin (for clickable world maps).
For studying and visualizing connections within any type of network, there’s also software with free trial periods such as NodeXL, Gephi and UCINET. Some popular analytics tools that enable you to create a variety of data visualizations are Tableau Public and Many Eyes. When it comes to infographics, Visme offers a wide variety of templates to present your data in a colorful and attractive manner.
Once you’re ready to present your cool-looking infographic or data visualization, you’ll find that all the hard work you put into creating this completely original piece of content was worth the effort. Not only will your audience appreciate it, they will gladly share it with the rest of the world for you.
Did you find this post interesting or useful? We would love to hear your opinions, suggestions and storytelling experiences in the comments section below.