I fell in love with data at the DataHarvest conference in Belgium, in 2014. Being a reporter and TV producer, I saw the beauty of uncovering the root causes of the issues and systemic failures. Having returned from that conference, I took the online class ‘Doing Journalism With Data: First Steps, Skills, and Tools’ taught by Simon Rogers, Paul Bradshaw, Steve Doig, Nicolas Kayser-Bril, and Alberto Cairo. Somebody once told me that nearly all data journalists in Europe took that class. It was a great source of inspiration and a solid skills foundation. That year, I became a part of the Open Knowledge community.
I continued my journey with data while finishing up my Master’s Program. Soon after graduation, I interned at Open Knowledge Belgium, organizing a hackathon at the Council of the European Union. Later that year, I got my first data journalism job, as a trainer assistant to Eva Constantaras. Eva became my mentor for years to come.
As a data journalism trainer, I wanted to research what could make data journalism sustainable. I researched the use of open data in Russian investigative journalism as part of my fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. By the end of it, I had a roadmap for myself. I believe this is why, when Eva and I came to Kyrgyzstan to run a month-long Data Journalism Summer Institute, I saw the opportunity and decided to stay.
For the next four years, I was wearing multiple hats and mostly teaching, mentoring, and editing data journalism projects with students and local newsrooms. I served at the Journalism & Mass Communications Department at the American University of Central Asia. I engaged with Internews Kyrgyzstan as a lead trainer and mentor for their year-long data journalism fellowship, for which I designed the study program and trained my assistants. With alumni of my first training, we co-founded the School of Data Kyrgyzstan, actively promoting data journalism through education and events. In 2020, we established the first Russian-language data journalism conference, LAMPA.
We published the first data journalism stories in Kyrgyzstan. With data, we investigated the influence of poverty on health and education, the vicious cycle of domestic violence, barriers to clean water in rural areas, and the correlation between early marriages and maternal mortality. We scrutinized the judiciary system, government expenditures, and the work of the parliament. These stories sparked national debate and were acclaimed internationally. In 2021, my mentees brought the first Sigma Award to Kyrgyzstan for their piece on femicide.
By that time, I saw the systemic change happening in the media community in the country, with data journalism becoming a norm. I started looking for the next step.
My ‘capstone project’ from this 4-year residence in Kyrgyzstan was a semester-long data story about the poor state of school infrastructure, implemented as a part of the ‘Data Storytelling’ course I was teaching. We cross-published this as a series in nine media outlets. The main bar was followed up by a series of reports from local schools, and a game called “To save a school.” The story got a special prize at the national investigative journalism award “The Truth” and the first prize in its category at the national journalism award “Aspiration.”
Meanwhile, I got into the Lede Program and was lucky to be selected for the Alfred Friendly fellowship, which places international journalists in US newsrooms.
In January 2022, I joined the data team at my host newsroom, The Marshall Project. This is where I spent most of 2022. I consider my data editor, David Eads, as my mentor, too.
Description of portfolio:
“What You Need to Know About the Rise in U.S. Mass Shootings”:
33,000 page views. This story was #5 out of all TMP stories that year on Apple news gaining 247,000 views.
The main challenge was the absence of a single database of mass shootings. I went through all of them to prove that US mass shootings are on the rise, no matter how you count. This story was cross-published with The Guardian and highlighted by the researchers of the issue at The Violence Project.
It also got lots of interest from readers who wrote emails and left comments. We anticipated these questions (why this database, why the number, not the rate, etc.), so I had them already answered during the analysis stage. I interacted with readers on Reddit and released the code and methodology to build trust and explain my work: “How do we know mass shootings are increasing?”.
“Rifles, Tasers and Jails: How Cities and States Spent Billions of COVID-19 Relief”.
24,000 page views
Since the beginning of my fellowship with The Marshall Project, I have been studying how federal COVID funding was spent on criminal justice. This involved some data journalism heavy-lifting, getting data from various sources in different formats. The main challenge was that the data does not allow to answer questions like ‘how much money was spent on X’, so our analysis involved a lot of additional categorization, context-setting, and pattern-seeking.
This story is a national overview of how billions of federal grant money end up in the criminal justice system. It was the most trafficked and talked about story published by The Marshall Project in the past few months. It was also republished by several newsrooms and websites, and made it to the top-10 data journalism links by the Global Investigative Journalism Network that week.
We also partnered with Axios and shared our database with them for exploration. This partnership resulted in 270,000 email opens in the first 10 ARPA stories they run. They have run quite a few ARPA stories since.
During this time, I also appeared as an expert at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies’ data journalism workshop series ‘Follow the money: American Rescue Plan”, attended by dozens of local reporters from the US newsrooms.
We run a few local follow-ups where I did most of the data analysis and, in the case of the story on Independence, reporting, too. I talked to the local NPR affiliate in an interview about how we reported the story. They were both cross-published by several local media.
Overall, starting from July 2022, when my first story came out, I ranked #10 overall in terms of TMP on-site traffic, which is top 25 percentile among active TMP authors.
My fellowship concluded in October 2022, and in December 2022, I joined Newsday as a data reporter in the investigations team. Together with the politics reporter Scott Eidler, we published this story: “George Santos far outspent other successful LI GOP congressional hopefuls for food, out-of-state travel” on 2022-12-30. I did all of the data analysis and visualizations for this one. I guess the main challenge was doing data analysis on a deadline. The story had 8,731 unique visitors and prompted 14 people to subscribe to Newsday.
Throughout the year, I also engaged in teaching data journalsim (workshops for Alfred Friendly fellows, investigative journalists at RISE Moldova and a global cohort of students at the OSUN Data Storytelling class) and public speaking (“Data Journalsim in the wartime’, a guest lecture at the California State University).
Data journalism to me is about both reporting and sharing.