With Australia Talks, the ABC built a sweeping portrait of Australians’ attitudes and behaviours, and then created an immersive news application that allowed people to explore their own individual story through the lens of that data — helping them to better understand themselves, their neighbours and their country.
The user starts out by answering questions about topical issues (eg. climate change), and their own experiences (eg. sex, self-esteem).
Australia Talks then delivers a personalised story exploring how the individual’s attitudes and experiences compare to other Australians — based on the results of an earlier, representative sample of 54,000 people.
The Australia Talks news application was completed by more than 450,000 people, and a subsequent impact study found that 30 per cent of Australians engaged with the project as a whole.
Australia Talks posed curly questions about hot-button topics (smacking children, climate change) and also dug into very personal areas (sex, happiness). Many people found that the very act of answering prompted them to think about their own opinions and behaviours in new and surprising ways.
Then, their personalised Australia Talks results page provided them with both a greater understanding of themselves and their fellow Australians, and also often a sense of belonging.
One young audience member told us she cried when she completed the Australia Talks tool because she found it so affirming and “felt less alone” when she learned how many other young Australians were also struggling with mental health concerns.
Another user said that being asked how much she would be willing to spend personally to slow climate change had prompted her to start buying carbon offsets.
Another wrote: “From naked selfie to religion, as an Indonesian migrant, this Australia Talks by ABC News really helps me to know where I fit in modern Australia.”
By exploring the views and experiences of the nation, Australia Talks was able to spark important conversations — about climate change, mental health, national identity, gender, prejudice, freedom of speech, religion and much more.
The conversations played out both between individual citizens and on the national stage. They were held on social media, but also in the real world through dozens of community engagement events including outside broadcasts and town hall meetings.
They were also extended by media outlets across Australia, including the Guardian, The Australian, Daily Mail, Australian Financial Review as well as some international coverage.
Australia Talks was an epic undertaking, two years in the making, conducted by the ABC in conjunction with social scientists and data scientists at Vox Pop Labs.
We started by crowdsourcing areas of concern for Australians through open-text surveys and interviews with thousands of Australians from across the political and sociodemographic spectrum. With an academic advisory panel, we then designed more than 500 questions and statements that tested the attitudes and behaviours of Australians.
After 18 months of crowdsourcing and survey design, these 500 questions were then put to 54,000 Australians in July 2019. We spent a month in August analysing the data with help from data journalists at ABC and Vox Pop Labs’ data analysts.
We then developed the Australia Talks news application as the central way for people to understand this huge new dataset and situate themselves within the broader narrative of modern Australia.
This involved the selection of a subset of survey questions to include in the tool, and the development of an algorithm to generate the personalised results pages. And when we say personalised, we really mean personalised. There were more than 574 sextillion possible results pages — well and truly more than one possible result for every individual Australian!
One key consideration was for each of those pages to have a clear storytelling arc, weaving together personal experiences, as well as views and hopes around a broad range of themes such as prejudice, happiness, sex, cost of living, climate change and identity.
We also wanted Australia Talks to engage with the widest range of Australians as possible, so made it available in four languages (English, Simplified Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese).
The Australia Talks application was used by more than 450,000 people, and results cards were shared 7,000 times on social media.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The project’s aim is to get the Australian community talking about things that matter to them — and we want to include as many people as possible in that conversation. As a result, we decided to launch this ambitious news application not only in English, but also the three most common languages among non-English speaking Australians (Simplified Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese).
Launching such a complex interactive digital experience in multiple languages was an enormous undertaking — and a first for us at the ABC. As we closed in on launch, translation seemed to pose a new, surprising challenge with the dawn of each day.
The ABC puts an enormous amount of effort into making sure our stories are accurate, fair and interesting for the audience. So when we committed to launching Australia Talks in three languages other than English, we were determined that those other languages would get the same high-quality experience as we offer our English-language readers.
Working with translators when all the key developers and editorial staff were English-only speakers meant we had to undertake additional rounds of quality testing. When you can’t read the text, importing multiple languages into the back-end of the application is a fraught process.
Each individual language had its own unique challenges as well. Arabic, for example, is a right-to-left language which throws up all kinds of unexpected challenges — from the design of the data visualisations and page layout to how the software we used to simply edit the content handled each language.
What can others learn from this project?
1. How partnering across disciplines can extend your journalism
The ABC has a long history of delivering important journalism. But journalists are not trained in the latest methods of social science or public opinion research.
To develop such a sophisticated project, it was necessary to marry the ABC’s journalistic prowess with specialists in social science and data science. Australia Talks proves that the combination of journalism with social science can deliver powerful results.
2. How to make data feel personal, and engaging
Taking a huge dataset — with literally millions of individual data points — and making it accessible and understandable for the audience is always a huge challenge. The power of the Australia Talks approach is that it puts the focus of the app experience on the individual user, and uses their own personal thoughts and feelings as the way to guide them through the dataset.
This is an extremely powerful framing, as it allows the user to be at the centre of the storytelling. While that could risk becoming narcissistic, the arc of the Australia Talks story uses the individual as simply the starting point, helping the user to look outward and expanding their understanding of others in the community.
australiatalks.abc.net.au/results/2ba047c5-e507-42cb-add5-71a723645701 (indicative results page)
www.abc.net.au/news/about/backstory/digital/2019-10-24/australia-talks-your-questions-answered/11608434 (How and why explainer)
www.abc.net.au/news/2019-10-06/australia-talks-explained/11570332 (Launch explainer)