2021 Shortlist

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Digital Story Innovations team

Country/area: Australia

Organisation: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Organisation size: Big

The ABC’s Digital Story Innovations team is a collection of journalists, developers, a designer and social media and video specialists. The team is focussed on data-driven, visual storytelling for Australian audiences.

Since its inception, we’ve used data to investigate and visualise stories on a broad range of issues from internment camps in remote China, devastating bushfires, how the Catholic school system takes from the poor to give to the rich and the wide reaching impact of climate change.

 The DSI team’s 2020 portfolio showcases how data-driven techniques can be used across the full spectrum of story creation — from discovery to research, analysis and presentation — to either break new terrain or deepen public understanding of familiar topics.

The portfolio demonstrates how innovative storytelling techniques – such as data-driven investigation, graphics and interactive design – can be seamlessly blended with traditional person-centred storytelling to powerful effect. 

It includes ground-breaking investigations based on leaked data (Catholic schools), exclusive access to tightly-held datasets (sexual assault, water theft), in-depth analyses of spatial datasets (the Arctic, water theft) as well as innovative use of publicly available datasets (coronavirus stories).

Each project demonstrates a commitment to rigorous, meaningful and transparent use of data while being unique in concept and execution.

Description of portfolio:

By combining innovative data mining, blending and analysis with compelling visual storytelling, our team is able to deliver investigative and explanatory journalism in a way that breaks down the complex nature of many of the topics.

Using water flow modelling data we revealed to our readers the disappearance of trillions of litres of water from Australia’s most vital network of rivers. We also analysed and visualised decades worth of water level data captured from both satellites and river gauges to show the devastating impact of drought on communities across Australia.

We were able to transport our audience to the remote environment of the Arctic Circle using spatial and climate data, to walk them through the effects climate change is having on the polar sea ice. A key goal was to ensure readers came away with a clear sense of why the stories were important and how they have been affected.

With “Rough justice”, the challenge was two-fold: first, obtaining multiple datasets from different police jurisdictions; and secondly, reconciling these disparate datasets to produce a coherent, accurate and meaningful national picture.

Our reporter negotiated for more than a year to obtain this exclusive data for every jurisdiction. In some instances, it involved informal collaboration with police commanders and police statisticians. In others, we were only able to obtain the requested data after applying pressure through backchannels. We then worked with two independent teams of experts to create a  framework for “mapping” dozens of police investigation outcomes across these crime classification systems.

“How the Catholic school system takes from the poor to give to the rich” combined leaked data from Catholic system insiders with finance figures scraped from the My School website. The My School dataset provides a more detailed picture of school income and expenditure than any publicly available data but is among the most tightly-held datasets in Australian education history.

Combining these datasets allowed us to calculate how the Catholic system’s secret funding formula impacted every school in the system. First, we extracted the secret funding formula by manually measuring the axes and data points in a series of scatterplots presented in the leaked documents. (The data used to create these scatterplots was not contained in the documents.) Next, we used the My School data to recreate the scatterplots as an interactive chart with “live data”. Lastly, we built a database to allow users to search for a school and individual results.

Our team has also led the ABC’s collection and analysis of domestic coronavirus statistics, maintaining a database that tracks key information about Australia’s fight against Covid-19.

Maintaining this database is not a straightforward exercise. The data is separately compiled and held by each of Australia’s eight state and territory health departments, plus the federal health department. Each uses its own definitions, protocols and processes. Combining this data into a national dataset that allows meaningful comparisons across the jurisdictions is a daily battle that requires forensic interrogation of multiple disparate datasets and  intimate understanding of the  methodology behind each one. To ensure the highest standards of data integrity we work closely with each of the nine health departments plus a network of researchers, physicians and public health experts.

With the data collection aspect being so labour intensive, we needed to streamline other parts of the reporting process. This led us to the idea of a semi-automated story, with “custom words” pulled from a central database maintained in Google sheets.

The story is constantly evolving, with visualisations and analysis added, expanded or removed as needed. It remains a vital resource for the public for up-to-date, accurate data about the pandemic.

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