Data journalism, crossing borders and making friends

One of our DataJLab team members, Josh Boissevain, recently went to Moldova to sit in on a data journalism bootcamp. This is his dispatch.

For a special breed of person, the term “data journalism” can act as a secret code, a signifier of a kindred soul — a brother (or sister) in arms.

For those not in the know, data journalism conjures very little. Something to do with journalism and computers (and probably some math)…how nerdy and boring. But for those initiated, it represents something special: a journalistic superpower, a possible salvation for a struggling industry and an all-consuming, though challenging, personal passion.

If you happen to find yourself in another country in the presence of other journalists, just mention these two words words and scan the eyes of your company for a pair or two showing that spark of recognition. If you see it, do yourself a favor and spend the rest of your time talking to that person. You’ll have more than enough to talk about and a new best friend, even if you don’t share more than a few words of a common language.

Where's Moldova?

Where’s Moldova?

This past fall, I had opportunity to try this out. In November, I travelled to Moldova, a small but beautiful country between Romania and Ukraine, to sit in on their second-ever data journalism bootcamp.  I was there to take notes on what was taught so I and the organization I work for could begin planning a follow up camp in Moldova a few weeks later.

The event was great. The participants, made up of young Moldovan journalists and activists (as well as a few who came all the way from Armenia, Kazakhstan, Serbia and Belarus), were incredibly passionate and soaked up the torrent of new tools and skills with ease. It was organized by the United Nations Development Programme anti-corruption team in partnership with the Open Knowledge Foundation’s School of Data project.

Why Moldova, you might ask? Well to start with, the country is something of an open-data wunderkind (or at least it’s quickly on the road to becoming one). With the support of (and a $20 million check from) the World Bank, the Moldovan government has been releasing open data left and right.

In response, Moldovan civil society quickly took up the challenge to make use of the data Crina Boros, a data journalist with the Thomson Reuters Foundation who helped lead the bootcamp, gave a great write-up on Moldova’s open-data boom, if you want to know more.  And if you want a visual peek into some of the great projects to have sprung from the wealth of data, check out the project Budget Stories, led by one of the bootcamp’s participants and presenters, Victoria Vlad. (The link is in Romanian, but there are enough infographics to get a good idea of the cool things they have been up to.)

 And why me? well before I ended up at Tilburg, I worked as the social media editor and a researcher for Transitions, a Prague based-media development NGO. Transitions is both an regional longform news outlet as well as a training organization for journalists in post-communist and post-Soviet countries. I was there to coordinate with UNDP because Transitions was planning our own data journalism bootcamp in December and we wanted to build on the skills that participants learned here and step it up a notch.

The participants of Moldova's DJ bootcamp pose for a picture.  Josh is in the top left of the photo

The participants of Moldova’s DJ bootcamp pose for a picture. Josh is in the top left of the photo

Specifically, The School of Data team introduced them to several tools they could use to start parsing and visualizing data.  Participants also heard from a number of members of Moldovan civil society, including the Stela Mocan, the director of the Country’s e-government center. As a highlight, participants got several hours of guided data expeditions where they were lead through data sets using Excel pivot tables, Fusion tables and APIs.

After seeing the UNDP’s event, our plan at TOL was to take the same group of Moldovan participants and go even further with the data expedition model, but this time looking specifically into how to follow the money and weed out the threads of corruption in their country.  This time though, the camp was led by Paul Radu, the director of Romania’s R.I.S.E. project and executive director of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

Here is a great intro to the type of journalism Paul teaches:

If you’re a regular reader of the DataJLab blog and Paul’s name sounds familiar, it’s because my colleague Frank Belyeu recently participated in a three day workshop in Prague also led by Paul.  In Prague, Frank got quite a bit of hands-on experience in the follow-the-money strategies that has made Paul one of the top investigative journalists in Europe.

Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to attend either the December boot camp or the course in Prague with Frank,  but I was so thankful for the opportunity to attend the November one and meet a whole new international crop of passionate journalists.

As a side note, I also got a chance to introduce Tilburg’s Master’s program and some of the work our DataJLab is doing, and many of the participants we pretty interested.  Who knows? Maybe we’ll add some of them to our DataJLab in the near future.

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