Open data and data journalism: NODA16 conference.

Last week, we presented a paper called MediaMill:Defining hyperlocal journalism at the Nordic Data Journalism (NODA) Conference in Helskinki. Organised over three days, it started with a one day academic conference and then two days of industry driven workshops and presentations.

Our presentation talked about the idea that the kind of thing the MediaMill project is doing represents an emerging form of Hyperlocal Data Journalism:

a community driven, civically informed process of creating, developing and exploiting social and economic value at a local level through the use of open government data and the enabling processes of data journalism.

You can see the presentation and get a link to the paper from this slide set.  and there is a good roundup of some of the points raised at the pre-conference and there are videos of all the presentations as well.

IMG_3527The main event

The main conference was, as you would expect, dominated by talk of the Panama Papers. The two days proper started with a keynote that included a chat with Data Projects team editor for the at the Guardian Helena Bengtsson and was closed with a session with Bastian Obermayer from Süddeutsche Zeitung. Obermayer, who was the first person contacted by the anonymous source who leaked the Panama Papers, documents from Mossack Fonseca.

But in between talk of giant data dumps and top secret wrangling, there were plenty of practical sessions on using excel, mapping and even building your own robot (Jens Finnäs shared his python code on that popular session).

There’s a great storify of the conference by Maria Crosas (and day one as well)

The main take-away for us though was the lack of distinction between open data and open government data: – Open data and open government data  are too easily conflated by journalists

There wasn’t a lot of love for open data at the conference. In a panel debate about open data, Esa Mäkinen Head of development, data & interactives at Helsingin Sanomat commented that open data advocates are “the lapdogs of government!” But even if the language was more guarded in other sessions the idea was the same; Open data is for safe, uncritical and relatively useless data. If you wanted the good stuff then you needed Freedom of information. Open data was a mechanism for governments to give the impression of transparency without doing it. These are not new concerns or criticisms but it did reflect the general feel of most data journalists that open data was not useful for proper accountability and transparency. It didn’t stop them asking for more though! And when asked why journalists are often quite bad about making the data they own ‘open’ the answers given sounded remarkably similar to the reasons given for government not to make their data open.


Interesting biases emerged in the Open Data debate with Erik Borälv, manager for open innovation at Vinnova – Sweden’s innovation agency, Pernilla Näsfors, data consultant, Openhearted, Helena Bengtsson, The Guardian and Pernilla Näsfors, data consultant, Openhearted.

It was also clear that for most of the delegates, Data journalism is not locally focussed

Of course the timing means that the conference was going to be dominated by the Panama Papers. But there is a sense that, in a field dominated by interest in algorithmic investigations, an approach that demands more data (the ‘my data dump is bigger than your dump’ arms race) that the practice and concepts scale up but not down. Despite regularly raising concerns that it was hard to build momentum in the industry,  there was little or no talk of data journalism by local news outlets. This seems a missed opportunity to reach down and engage a massive chunk of the industry who see things like the Panama Papers as inspirational but in practice, unobtainable.