Data journalism solves big problems, but it’s an organizational mess. A new tool from the AP aims to fix that.

September 17, 2019
Category: Tech & Tools

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Tuesday? Sign up here.

Data journalism has uncloaked offshore financial havens, caught police breaking the same rules of the road that they’re supposed to be enforcing and laid bare how American infrastructure carves out zones of inequality.

It often seems like the area of journalism that focuses on numbers, analysis and systemic problems is capable of revealing any issue, global or local, manmade or natural. But one issue data journalism hasn’t been able to solve is one within its own walls — standardization.

It sounds like an arcane, almost bureaucratic problem, but the structure of data journalism is often a Wild West in need of a lasso. Data journalists rely on multiple programming languages and countless processes and techniques to get their jobs done — rendering collaboration between newsrooms or even individual journalists an exercise in translation.

It makes sense that the Associated Press, a newsroom that exists to work with other newsrooms, would want to solve this problem. Last week, the AP unveiled AP Datakit, a free and open source tool built to make it easier for newsrooms and journalists to collaborate on data journalism.

“The purpose of it is to help us be more consistent in the way we work,” said Troy Thibodeaux, the AP’s data science and news applications editor, in a phone call. “Anyone on the team can jump on a project and all the projects have the same basic structure.”

Besides allowing newsrooms to standardize data practices and provide definition to the structure of big projects, Thibodeaux says AP Datakit handles the minutiae involved in data journalism. It automates things like naming conventions, setting up connections between apps, generally “all of the things that are repetitive or boring or not part of the journalism,” he said.

The AP’s goal with Datakit is to build a community of standards in the data journalism world, making it easier for everyone to work together on big projects. That’s why the organization is making the tool available to everyone, even those who don’t subscribe to AP services.

“At its heart, AP is a collaborative. It’s what we are,” Thibodeaux said.

UNIVERSAL TRANSLATOR: Technology is fascinating. Sometimes, like ’50s-era visions of flying cars and skyscraper utopias, our predictions are way off the mark. And then something fantastical is made real and everything seems possible again. That’s how I felt last week, when Trint unveiled instant transcription of audio and instant language translation. Trint is an automatic transcription tool that proved to be highly accurate in a rigorous test of the top tools in 2017. Back then, I found it mindblowing that an algorithm could render my spoken words into precise text in just a few minutes. Now, watching my words appear before me as I speak them, and then seeing them translate instantly into 25 languages, I feel a bit like Jean-Luc Picard, standing on the bridge of the Enterprise, negotiating with a being I can only understand thanks to great leaps of technology. What a time to be alive.

EARLY BIRDS: Let’s say — hypothetically speaking, of course — that a major newspaper based in Washington, D.C., publishes a thoroughly reported story about the president. And then, let’s say — still hypothetically, mind you — that another publication based in the same city that covers the same topics aggregates that story, adds a bit of search engine optimization wizardry and a few snarky hot takes, and then suddenly appears above the original article in search rankings. It’s not only unfair, it’s generally not what searchers are looking for. That’s why it matters that Google has announced that it will elevate original reporting in its search results. Credit should go where credit is due.

PRO GRADE: Sean Baker, the mind behind “The Florida Project” and a number of other critically acclaimed movies, set up an interesting premise at Apple’s keynote last week. “On set, I use a tool called the director’s viewfinder. It helps me find a frame and choose focal length,” Baker said. “Filmmakers have been doing it like this for nearly 75 years.” Then Christopher Cohen, the chief technology officer for app Filmic Pro, dropped the payoff question: “But what if you could use what we all have in our pockets?” Then Cohen and Baker show how, with the Filmic Pro app and Apple’s latest iPhone (or with an Android, if you’re into that), you can capture beautiful video, from multiple angles and multiple focal lengths. “It’s totally transformative,” Baker says, and I agree.

GROUPTHINK: I can answer in the affirmative, speaking from experience, to a tweet from GateHouse’s Penny Riordan: “If you don’t have a hurricane group set up to help share information during a hurricane, you’re doing social media wrong.” The Daytona Beach News-Journal set up a Facebook group for Hurricane Dorian that reached 4,000 members in two days. It’s good for audiences who are seeking out minute-by-minute information about major storms (and the dozens of other use cases for this type of community engagement) and it’s good for the organizations who want to provide their communities with useful information. Riordan offers a handful of best practices on her thread.

SILENT BROWSING: A good VPN (virtual private network, for the abbreviation-adverse) can open access to blocked websites in closed-down environments, protect passwords and sensitive information from snooping eyes and generally shroud your online activities in a veil of privacy. But they’re not super user friendly. I love TunnelBear because it’s cute and easy to use, but it would be even better (and more widely adopted) if you never had to think about it at all. Mozilla is on it. Last week, Mozilla started testing a Firefox-based VPN service called Firefox Private Network. Here’s how to give it a shot.

NWS IN BRF:

  • I can hold an entire conversation in emoji and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you can, too. But it’s kind of a pain to access them when you’re not on a phone, right? If you’re a Mac user, there’s an easy fix. Hit control + command + space in any text box and an emoji keyboard will reveal itself to anyone who is worthy. ✏️👎😀👍
  • Lizzy Hazeltine shares a good idea from the Online News Association conference (advice which itself comes from the Texas Tribune’s Rodney Gibbs): Forward all good news and wins to a shared inbox so that everyone involved can see the feedback. Though the tip is envisioned as a way to help with grant reporting, it also seems like a great way to boost morale, no?
  • And now, the worst part of this job. Here’s your reminder that Google Fusion Tables will cease to exist after Dec. 3. Google suggests you download your data via Google Takeout or use the Fusion Tables Archive Tool to save your work. Nothing lasts forever, that’s the way it’s gotta be.

FROM POYNTER: This year, I have the great honor of organizing and participating in the Poynter Media Innovation Tour for the second year in a row. The tour stops at many of America’s best newsrooms in a six-day trip that takes us to New York and Washington, D.C. I was flabbergasted for most of last year’s trip and have been quietly sharing some of the findings with you here ever since. But if you want to see it for yourself, a last-minute spot just opened up for this year’s tour. It’s a bit of an investment, and today is the last day to apply, but I promise that every second is worth it (plus you get to hang out with me for a week). Join us!

Ren LaForme is Poynter’s digital tools reporter. He can be reached at ren@poynter.org or on Twitter at @itsren.

Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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  • As a newbie, I have faced a problem of information leaking. I’ve lost my article due to that situation… It was a bad experience, but I’ve learned my lesson and now I always do my researches using VPN… NordVPN to be exact. So, no one will hack me, steal my resources and so on. This provider is the best in security, so don’t repeat my mistakes, use it, and you won’t regret.