A profession that is changing in relation to numbers and statistics. Linc collected the stories of a few specialists
When we think about the relationship between journalism and big data, some people are afraid of the Kodak effect. As the film multinational corporation was swept away by digital photography, several people fear that the huge amounts of big data and artificial intelligence will eventually make the journalist role redundant. However, despite the difficulties in the world of information, the Apocalypse hasn’t come as yet. Big data, however, have been changing this profession for some time.
A proof of this is the growing emergence of data journalism (or data-driven journalism), focused on the collection, study and visualization of data. While in the Anglo-saxon media, including The Guardian or The New York Times, data editors are frequently found inside the editorial staff, in Italy, we mostly lack of specific figures. And the rare specialized professionals available often operate through agencies.
Among these figures, Alessio Cimarelli, 33 years-old, is the co-founder of dataninja.it, a network born in 2012 and aimed at providing media and organizations with data journalism services. «Data journalism is more objective: it tells new stories and explains phenomenons that were previously unknown or hardly regarded», explains Cimarelli, who is a physician in addition to data journalist. According to Cimarelli, the data journalist is a journalist who exploits the techniques of quantitative data analysis as a working engine. One of the best known projects run by Alessio is “The Migrants Files”, an inquiry on the immigrants fleeing to Europe, conducted in 2012 by 10 journalists of 6 different countries.
«There were no reliable figures about the victims of migration. It is self-evident how much this specific figure could contribute to the understanding of the phenomenon», he explains. «Starting from existing works, we built a dataset which could answer this question. And we succeeded». What is new today about data journalism as compared with that of the past? «The bit and internet: the data are now digital and there are technologies such as social networks, Cloud and open source softwares that make the access to information easier and the operations faster and more accurate». To do a good data journalism you need several skills: the ideal, according to Cimarelli, is to work in a team.
Four figures are needed: journalists,
data analysis and statistics specialists,
developers and graphic designers
Data analysis turns jobs upside down
A similar mix of various professional figures also characterizes Viz & Chips, a team born in 2013 in Turin, including two journalists, one graphic designer, one data analyst and two developers. «We produce infographics and visualizations for editors, organizations and public administrations», says Barbara D’Amico, 33 years-old, who explains how data analysis changed her work: «My ability to check news has improved and it has become simpler for me to offer detailed studies. Among the outcomes, I would also include the preparation of training courses».
Gianmarco Guazzo, 41 years-old from Piemonte, focused on open data, in other words the data usually made available by public organizations. In 2012, after a career as a journalist and press agent, he attended a specialization course on open data journalism and then started to describe the world through numbers and data. In 2015, he became the Head of Communication for “A Scuola di OpenCoesione”, a public program for students which offers online courses on the analysis of the data published on OpenCoesione.gov.it, the national open data portal devoted to the use of public fundings. «Working on open data enhances the civic nature of this job», says Guazzo. «We teach our students to collect data, study them and illustrate them».
The case of Agency H24
One of these young professionals possibly has the right profile to work for the agency that has pioneered the use of big data and machine learning in Italy: H24. Founded in Rome by Mauro Parissone, Laura Guglielmetti and Emanuele Pascucci, H24 produces video contents live or on demand without employing journalists (except one, the director Parissone), but rather relying on data scientists, IT experts, news selectors, producers and film-makers who shoot events around places.
H24 exploits a proprietary algorithm which surveys the social media to find out news or pick up their relevance in a different way. Once the news are selected, they are told live. They accomplish this through long distance shooting techniques or employing their own film makers, who have to shoot without adding comments, or even asking people via the social networks to record local events with their smartphones.
«The algorithm identifies what may turn up to be an interesting story: for example, it found out that a fire that occurred in Sestri Levante last September, almost ignored by the media, had become a hot topic among thousands of people», says Parissone. «So, we asked local people – to which we give a refund – to get the first pictures in real time and only later sent our film-makers. When events are predictable, we rely on beauty cams and drones». If this way of making narratives were to become the standard, then we could say that the Kodak effect made its last victim: journalism.
(translation by Cecilia Braghin)