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Datatelling 101

We’ve been doing datatelling for quite some time now, whether for the Times, the BBC or the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. It is time we started sharing some thoughts on why and how we’ve been approaching the field. Let us start a first post in our datatelling series by a quick look at some of the main players kicking the ball.

Governments — some, such as the USA, the UK or France, much more so than others — have begun treading the paths towards more transparency by making public large batches of data pertaining to all sorts of fields, from crime to health, education to poverty, the economy to social benefits or public transportation to housing. The uses that could be made of these data are countless, yet the purpose served is unique and highly valuable: empowering citizens.

Thanks to data citizens can indeed take part in the public debate equipped with a more profound understanding of pros and cons, whatever decision they should make. For instance one would be able to cast a more informed vote on retirement pension schemes had they been confronted with varying forecast scenarios based on relevant variables such as life expectancy, employment rates, birth rates, immigration rates, growth rates, etc.

Journalists can take advantage of this ever-growing stock of data to shape as accurately as possible certain debates or even to deliver self-sufficient data as news — and sometimes some do enter the field of explanatory journalism, aka data journalism or exploratory journalism, whether at ESPN FiveThirtyEight, the NYT UpshotVoxLes Décodeurs by Le Monde or The Guardian for instance. Instead of relying mostly if not solely on opinions, random testimonials or subjective views, journalists can craft informed articles around facts, figures, stakes, trends, statistics and other enlightening pieces of information.

This is not to say that there shall be no room for conflicting interpretations, far from it. Indeed the decisions we have to make when it comes to public choices cannot be equated to binary choices where right and wrong collide. Most of the public issues we need to address can be construed as moral issues and require not just facts but a good deal of subjectivity. However we can safely assume that informed subjectivity is a better component of the public debate than preconceptions.

As for marketing professionals, they have never had access to so much information — and privacy details — for “targeting” purposes. They make use of data to fine-tune messages to the most up-to-date statuses of consumers, to make sure the right message arrives at the right time through the right channel. Some will say that this ability to pin down the many interests of individuals is the key to more relevant and timely offers from brands.

Others will argue that this ability is far too intrusive and poses a serious threat to privacy — as revealed by the Snowden-NSA case. Due to evolving social norms in respect thereof — although not as radically altered as some at Facebook or Google may like them to be — let us say that there are good reasons to be concerned, as citizens, and that the jury is still out on this particular case.