Another project, your “Ideological Media Map”, would be the opposite kind of process—you took raw data from a research project, but then made it visual in a way that would be much more accessible to readers than a spreadsheet. That seems to align with a lot of things that Slate does, such as “The Explainer” column.
CW: Sure, that’s taking something that’s out there and presenting it in an appealing way. To me, that’s a perfectly successful project, if you allow readers to access and understand data, even if they could download it themselves.
Even after you collect the data, building these interactive elements must be incredibly time consuming.
DP: One of the things that I hope Labs is going to do is to develop templates for particular kinds of projects, so that even if the data is a different set of data, that you’ve already got the map function and you already know how it’s going to work. So you can create templates and then plug in different kinds of data sets. So we’ll have the job-loss map, and then maybe next time it’s not a map of the country, it’s a map of the world, and it’s not jobs, it’s McDonald’s.
CW: These things do take a fairly long time, much longer than writing an article. But we aspire to build a code library, so that we have all these different tools that are unique to Slate that we can then deploy very quickly if we want to use them again.
Do you think that these experiments are worth spending time on even if they might not necessarily have journalistic merit? Some things I see on the Labs server seem to have no real purpose, they’re just a fun thing to play around with. For instance, this “Facebook Name Explorer” charting all of the first and last names of Facebook users.
DP: I tend to be very liberal about this. When you have people like Chris and Jeremy, they’re going to have lots and lots of ideas. Some of them are going to be hardcore investigative journalism, some are going to be playful. If there are things they want to play around with, but that aren’t necessarily going to win us a National Magazine Award, that’s okay.
CW: The name map thing is actually pretty interesting. It certainly doesn’t have any news peg, or any argument attached to it, but I do think that names have a kind of sociological importance. For instance, you can see that some last names are associated with first names from a lot of different national origins, and other last names are more strictly tied to very common Biblical names like David or Christopher. I think this could be a tool for people to play around with and come to different conclusions; it’s more than a curiosity in my mind.
So I guess some of these data projects can start out as experiments without specific goals attached, but can then actually generate story ideas, maybe with the help of your readers.
CW: Right. We can do a fairly bare-bones visualization tool for a huge amount of data, where I certainly don’t have the time to go through all 15,000 Facebook names and look for interesting things, but if you lay it out and let people explore it and then encourage them to email you, then you can enlist your readers in a way that is fun for them. Then if they come up with anything great, you say “reader Rob Jones found this” and they get their name in their publication.
To me, that’s a great example of—you wouldn’t call it crowdsourcing, because crowdsourcing to me is more like using your readers for manual labor. Although that sometimes works, too; readers are often more than happy to pitch in. For instance, the Guardian did a brilliant project on the scandal with the members of Parliament and their abuse of expense accounts. This huge, scanned PDF document came out, so the Guardian set up something where readers could go through it and flag whether given one of these 150,000 pages had anything interesting on it. The way they did it was just brilliant because readers could log in and get a score for how many pages they had gone through, and they made a leaderboard, that kind of thing.
So they got their readers to help by turning it into a game.
Read the second part of this conversation here.