An interloper in the world of data journalism
Pinkie, a superactive open data advocat from Cambodia, considers herself an interloper in the world of data journalism. Even though she holds a degree in Economics and Business, Pinkie is more interested in telling stories rather than performing complex data analysis for economic modeling.
Her interest led her to Open Development Cambodia, a platform that independently aggregates and maps open development data in Cambodia. She is currently evangelizing a regional open data scale-up to shed light on development trends in the Mekong region with Open Development Initiative. We met here at a Deutsche Welle workshop and took the opportunity to ask here a bit about here connection to data
What is your data story?
I fell into it. It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t intentional. I didn’t consider myself to be someone who is good with numbers or highly analytical tasks, but I like storytelling, designs, and visual elements. When I started working at Open Development Cambodia, almost three years ago, I didn’t know that there was something called open data. Not many people in Cambodia knew, actually.
Nevertheless, right from the beginning, I really started liking ODC’s approach in being transparent with users about where the data and information came from and in making these data-sets available in digital and easy-to-understand visual presentations.
I see data-driven journalism as something that has the potential to be a catalyst for public policy change and civil engagement. Additionally, you can invite the public to discuss, form independent opinion, and maybe even to contribute.
You mentioned you passion for storytelling. What is a good story told by data?
A good story has to be simple, relatable, and actionable. Especially the simplicity aspect of it is sometimes overlooked; achieving simplicity requires science and art. It is very important. When people work with big and comprehensive data-sets, they often get carried away, since there is so much potential, and you have all these cool charts and colors to chose from. But in the end, you want to make sure that people get the story. Maybe the story is even personal to them, so that they can relate to it and finally take action.
On your twitter bio you describe yourself as “interloper wannabe”. What is that all about?
I was reading an essay about academic writing and how overly complicated and verbose they tend to be. This is kind of like intentionally keeping the majority of readers out because of formal aspects and technicalities. Interlopers are not welcome. As a non-native English speaker I myself experienced how difficult it is to write a university-level academic paper when I was studying in the United States; it’s a whole new writing style. So that tiny little part of me behaves like a rebel to that.
From time to time I find myself ending up in an area where I am a complete newby; a newby in open data, a newby in data journalism, a newby in design thinking. During these discovering phases, I carry that tiny little bit of insecurity and not a lot of confidence at first. For me, that is exactly the feeling that I think an interloper would feel, feeling challenged and not very confident. But that is ok. I can be an outsider, and if I don’t know how to do something, I am going to learn how it works.
So you are actively seeking for that interloper feeling?
Yes! I want to take more risks, I want to do more silly things. Just breaking the shell, and hopefully learning a lot of things in the process.
Since you mentioned academic writing, to what extend is your work nowadays related to academic research?
We are neither a think tank nor a research institute at Open Development Cambodia, but our works have been recommended as resources for researchers and have been cited in publications. We are producing “sound bite” information products to facilitate fact-based discussion around development trends. Think of them as an intersection between open data and data journalism minus editorial commentaries.
The government in Cambodia and the Lower Mekong Subregion countries have not implemented an open data agenda. We are trying to open up data in Cambodia by aggregating a lot of data-sets from different data providers, such as the government, NGOs, from businesses, and hopefully from academics.
What do you do with the collected data?
We synthesize the data collected from different sources – which is often contradicting, try to find a common ground, and present it in an intuitive way to invite people to have conversations about the data-sets. In Cambodia data literacy is not very high, it’s actually still at a very early stage. There is a lot of limitations about how to and in what form you can push data-related content to the readers. We also have the understanding that for open data to be more democratic we need to be able to talk in a very common language, in a very simple tone. We need to provide ample context for the data that we present. This is a reason why we provide introductory briefing for every topic that we cover.
You just mentioned limitations, are there any tools that you wish to have as a data journalist or as someone working in this field?
I think sometimes defining the need is more of a problem than actually delivering a tool for somebody. The question is how we encourage journalists who haven’t worked a lot with data-sets yet, to start with data journalism or just using data in their work. That is the challenge. It’s not just about creating tools but also providing data literacy; giving people the skill that they can do something small, gain the confidence, and then go on to something bigger. Just providing open data isn’t enough. You want the people to tell a story; you need journalists to tell good stories.
Talking about challenges, what issues do you experience?
I am talking as someone from a country where there is not a lot of data available in the public domain. From a country where you don’t have access to freedom of information, where you cannot make an information request. When you go to a data journalism conference in the West, people talk about algorithms, ways of engaging and committing. While for us the question is, how to get the government to not publish data-sets in image format or statistics in PDF. Data-sets, if available in the public domain, are often incomplete, contradicting, if published by different data providers, or lack proper metadata.
Therefore, the challenge is very, very different and so is the engagement; there are not a lot of accommodating policies encouraging people to re-use data. However, civil society organizations and some governmental agencies are becoming more open to sharing information, and I think Open Development Cambodia among others is a part of the push for this.
The interview was conducted by Eva Lopez-Lopez.