I have recently been in touch with a man named Nikhil Pahwa, Editor of Medianama, a company that provides news and analysis of digital media in India. I wanted to know if and how data journalism was any different in a different country. Medianama have recently joined up with another Indian company, Visual Data India, to provide a data journalism initiative, giving interactive visualisations on the digital and telecom domains.
Here is what Nikhil told me:
“We’ve launched a MediaNama Charts as a data journalism initiative primarily to provide our readers with visual representation of datasets on telecom, digital and media that are currently available in the public domain, which they can use to identify or reaffirm market trends. We’re focusing almost entirely on interactive visualizations using freely available tools like Tableau, Many Eyes and Google Charts and Fusion Tables, because they allow us to use larger data sets, and slice and dice them in multiple ways.
They allow our readers to navigate through multiple datasets and prove or disprove their own assumptions. We don’t only want to use data to tell stories, we also want our readers to find their own narrative in the data. More importantly, interactive visualisation allow them to contribute interpretations: while we provide the data and visualization, we would like to crowdsource observations.”
“We have been obsessively collecting data for the last two and a half years of our existence, and the challenge has always been that mere tables with numbers just don’t have that impact, and don’t adequately depict trends. We’ve also collected large datasets that are difficult to interpret if represented merely in a tabular form. So we’ve partnered with Visual-Data India, a venture focused on visualising public datasets across various sectors of public importance. Together we are colleting data, identifying specific industry issues to address with visualisations, and creating the visualisations meant specifically for MediaNama’s audience of decision makers from the digital and telecom domain.
For us as a company, this is an experiment. Our mandate is to help our readers understand industry trends better. Monetization is an important step and needs to be chosen carefully. I think there’s an opportunity in putting some data behind a paywall, but we’re not entirely convinced of that yet.”
So, we can see from this that data is used in much the same way as we use it in the UK, to provide a more simple way of looking at and understanding data. They also use the same tools as many data journalists do, such as Many Eyes. So far there aren’t any apparent differences between the two countries and their data journalism online.
“The problem we face in India is that publicly available data is difficult to find, distributed across multiple websites, limited in its scope, and more often than not, it is available online as a PDF of a scan of a printout of a report. We’re digitizing data from such reports, which is time consuming, and can be addressed if the Government released data in a usable format. However, there isn’t a public/open data initiative like a data.gov.uk from the Indian government, or the intent to make government datasets available to the public.
We’re addressing this gap by aggressively filing Right To Information requests (which is similar to Freedom of Information in the UK ) asking the government to release data that we find relevant for our readers – data like mobile banking transactions from the Reserve Bank of India, 3G/GPRS/EDGE usage trends from the government owned telecom operators MTNL and BSNL, state and city-wise broadband connections and the rural broadband rollout information from the Department of Telecom, among others. We’ve also asked our readers to send us their data requirements, and we’re figuring out how to aggregate or request that data for visualization.”
Now the differences become clear. The fact that we are living in two very different countries becomes clear, as we can see that the Indian government does not want to allow publicity of data. This explains what Nikhil has to say next…
“I’m not aware of any other data journalism initiatives in India: Visual-Data was the first venture I saw attempting to visualize public data, and we quickly tied up with them for our data. We could well be the first, but that’s not important. Ours is a domain specific mandate, but we hope that what we’re doing in the digital and telecom space can be extended by other publications to other domains. There’s enough useful data out there, and we hope more and more publications will request for data from the Indian government for visualization. Our overarching question being “Why should online media in India be a facsimile of Print?””
I disagree with Nikhil here, when he says that it is not important whether his company might’ve been the first to attempt data journalism online. I think it is very important, especially if, as he hopes it will, it is extended to other domains. So, according to the correspondence I’ve had with Nikhil, data journalists in India are a rarity. There are other data journalism initiatives in India, which were started up shortly after Nikhil’s, such as pagalguy.com. The lack of data available must make this so. It seems obvious to me that something needs to be done about the accountability of the Indian Government to the public, but that is not something I will go into now. It seems strange to me that we think data in journalism is everywhere, and that graphs and visualisations are taking the place of words numbers and figures. But perhaps instead we need to take a step back from the UK media, and have a look elsewhere.