Project news & updates

Data Journalism: a New Level of Playing Field

26 September 2011 | PROJECT NEWS


A review by Dimitri Tokmetzis of EJC’s session at PICNIC 2011: From Database Cities to Urban Stories 

Data traces and city life 

The simple act of living generates more data than one might expect. In fact, many data traces are created just through working, travelling, buying, communicating, and surfing the web. When data becomes a ubiquitous resource however, power relations between governments, companies and citizens are going to change and not necessarily for the better. 

Data journalism is one of the tools used in finding, establishing and maintaining a new level of playing field; but a lot of work still needs to be done. According to MIT associate professor Beth Coleman, ‘What we need is an API for cities.’ 

EJC @PICNIC: From Database Cities to Urban Stories 

The European Journalism Centre on Thursday 15 September organised a session entitled From Database Cities to Urban Stories, at the Amsterdam PICNIC Festival. The panellists, among whom Beth Coleman (MIT), Saskia Sassen (Columbia University), Mark Shepard (State University of New York), and Mirko Lorenz (Deutsche Welle), agreed that the information revolution has profoundly changed the way we use our urban spaces. 

Cities are equipped with more sensors that continuously feed data into increasingly intertwined systems, making cities not only modern, but also smart. Database technology holds the promise of efficient and effective public services. 

How do we use data to make city life better? 

Wouldn’t it be great if the traffic flows to, from and within a city could be optimised? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if public utility organisations could find waste and inefficiencies in their systems, so that our energy bills could go down and cities could become cleaner and greener? And what about commercial opportunities? With so much data flowing around, shops and companies are already tailoring products and messages to every consumer who walks into their store or business. 

But the data deluge must have more meaning for our urban environments, warned Beth Coleman. “An urban space must also make room for public interests, civic virtue and poetic expression. Urban data is currently overwhelmingly used to answer the question ‘what can we buy’? The question should be: ‘How do we make use of all the data to make (city) life better?’”

Access to data shifts power relations 

Commercial enterprises are heavy users of data and have become increasingly educated in constructing automated decision support systems that use algorithms in defining and deciding what is profitable and what is not, who gets access to services and spaces and who doesn’t. 

Governments are catching on fast. The New York City Police Department has a state of the art information control centre where data streams from traffic management, police records, city records and CCTV-images are continuously processed. The Baltimore police department uses algorithmic decision support systems to calculate who is likely to get involved in a murder – either as a victim or a perpetrator. 

As a result, power relations are shifting fast. Companies and governments have access to increasingly better data, better networks and better. They now know much more about you. Most citizens, on the other hand, have the media at their disposal. And although most media have made the leap to social networking and internet reporting, the tools they use for finding stories are still largely stuck in the twentieth century: phoning, talking to key players, analysing records (if the journalist is really persistent), etc. 

How to rebalance the power relations? 

The picture would be even bleaker if it were not for data journalism. In the second part of the EJC’s session at PICNIC, a couple of inspiring examples of civic activism were presented. 

Eymund Diegel, a Brooklyn native, talked about the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. He and a couple of neighbours were disturbed by the deteriorating quality of the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn, which displayed a large amount of filthy backwater. They used modern data technology to prod the city’s administration into action. They made aerial photographs using cheap cameras and balloons. They used mapping and infrared technology to show the existence of pockets of pollution. They also found out that there was still a fresh water spring that could be used to clean up parts of the canal. The project was not only helpful for the city’s administration, but also for the community, as it found a common cause for people to come together and work towards a solution. 

German journalist Mirko Lorenz sees data journalism as a way to end ‘modern cheating’, a situation where one party can fool another because the first party has better access to data and better understanding due to the correct handling of the data. Data journalism gives journalists and citizens alike a new process to use the same set of data in order to tell their own story. In the right hands, data can be used to expose weaknesses in governance, waste and abuse. What is more, gaining access to data is becoming easier with cheap hardware and (almost) free software. But it is not yet entirely fool proof, Lorenz warned. Data in and of itself is not enough. The data has to be filtered; noise has to be separated from meaning. The data has to be visualised in order to find a problem or a solution, and there is a great need for stories to be told with datasets. One can present one’s findings, but in order for people to listen, one has to construct a narrative, which often defies the mono-cultural story that is being told – which is exactly what good journalism does.

A lot of work still needs to be done. Big questions on ownership, openness and usability of data, transparency and trust need to be answered. Also media have to overcome their technological limitations and start looking outside the boundaries of the old way of doing things. This implies the need for a cultural change, something which is always difficult to achieve. But if done well, data journalism holds the potential to give data back to the audience, back to the citizens, and therefore to give back some of the power that was lost during the information revolution. 

Dimitri Tokmetzis (36) is a freelance journalist in the Netherlands and editor of the Dutch weblog Sargasso.


  • Video: Beth Coleman - ‘Using technology to run our cities: promises and perils’ 
  • Video: Mirko Lorenz - ‘From attention to trust: How data driven journalism can help us in the urban future’ 
  • Video: Saskia Sassen - ‘I Bring open source urbanism and urbanising technology’ 
  • Video: Marc Tuters - ‘A pointless vision for Amsterdam’s future’ 
  • Video: Martijn de Waal - ‘Urban media and the public sphere’ 
  • Slides: Mirko Lorenz - ‘From attention to trust:
 How data driven journalism can help us in the urban future’ 
  • Slides: Martijn de Waal - ‘Urban media and the public sphere’ 

Source: Data Driven Journalism website

Data Driven Journalism Initiative
Believing journalism also involves innovation, the EJC strives to promote Data Driven Journalism and focalise media and audience attention on this developing trend. With this in mind, we’ve created the first dedicated data journalism website, established a community of practitioners, organised workshops, and participated in the publication of the “Data Journalism Handbook".

PICNIC Festival
Since 2006, we’ve been organising the media events of the PICNIC Festival. Together with leading actors in the field of media innovation, we’ve been able to showcase to the public new ideas and developments. PICNIC Festival is also an opportunity for us to bring to light promising media initiatives and give them a platform and a chance to meaningfully contribute to the development of journalistic.