Data is not the Same as Information

At the beginning of the year Micah Sifry, the man behind TechPresident and the Personal Democracy Forum, wrote an extended article in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled “A See-Through Society.” The article strikes a hopeful note as it outlines the various ways that the web is helping to make our government more transparent. Sifry writes, “We are heading toward a world in which one-click universal disclosure, real-time reporting by both professionals and amateurs, dazzling data visualizations that tell compelling new stories, and the people’s ability to watch their government from below (what the French call sousveillance) are becoming commonplace.”

Sifry lauds the efforts of cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington DC who have led the way in opening up the data they collect to citizens who are willing and interested enough to dig into it, chop it up, reorganize it, and use it to tell us something new about the places we live. He also points out independent projects like PublicMarkup, and EveryBlock that are sparking a “revolution in participation” where people “talk, share, and talk back online,” engaging their local governments in new ways.

There are many aspects of Sifry’s article that I think are spot-on. There is no doubt that the incredible flood of data we are witnessing, and the innovative ways that individuals, non-profits and companies are using that data, are opening up government in important ways. However, if we are really concerned about communities and individuals getting the information they need to participate in our democracy, then we have to ask if transparency is the same thing as clarity, if seeing necessarily means understanding, and if data, even when organized and visualized in powerful ways, the same as information.

While Sifry never explicitly suggests that this new access to data can replace the traditional role of watchdog journalism, this message seems embedded throughout the article. Appearing as it does in the Columbia Journalism Review just as the crisis in the newspaper industry is reaching its apex, it is hard not to hear a bit of the old argument “technology will save us” in Sifry’s article.

As our access to data is radically expanded and the technology and tools with which to parse, manipulate, and visualize that data become easier to use, I have heard people refer to graphic designers and database architects as the new journalists. I have a friend who does information design for the New York Times, and I have long been fascinated with her work. I follow design blogs like Flowing Data and Information Aesthetics and read books by Edward Tufte. I am, in short, a bit of a data geek. But while I have a profound respect for the stories that can be told with data, I never mistake them for the stories that can be told through, well, stories.

The best data visualizations can layer many kinds of data, juxtaposing diverse but related information, and drawing new and important connections that illuminate the world in vital ways. And yet, data is always limited by its own construction, always only a collection of parts. Where as journalism, that is quality investigative journalism, real storytelling is about composing a whole. Using a legal metaphor, data is “just the facts” while journalism is “the truth, the whole truth” (or at least someone’s version of the truth). But for my part I would almost always choose the subjective, textured, nuanced richness of an good article over the objective, partial, stilted confines of a data set.

Data can tell us a lot, but it rarely provides the context that helps explain itself. Where did the data came from, how was it collected, what historical circumstances led to the relevance of this data, what data is missing? Journalism, when done right, tries to ask and answer these questions. Data and storytelling serve each other well, and our communities need both. There is a place for the kind of donor data that has allowed people to shine a spotlight on the role of money in elections, and there is a place for investigative journalism like that which shined a light on the Watergate scandal.

While we may be entering into an increasingly “see-through society” I believe we still need the watchful eyes of journalists to help us understand all that there is to see.

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