The numbers game

In the continuing story of life as a trainee journalist at Cardiff School of Journalism, today we learnt about Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR to its friends, who are increasing daily).

Data crunching to find a story might not seem as glamorous as door-stepping Amy Winehouse, but behind every statistic, every data set, there’s a story to be found.

We looked at numerous sources of information and ways to process it through databases and spreadsheets.

At this point I have to confess to number-blindness, a kind of equivalent dyslexia, but I’ve had to work with stuff for years so here are some of my top tips on facing the fear and doing it anyway, believe me, it’s worth it:

  1. Make it real – what’s the story you’re after? How do the numbers illustrate that story?
  2. You can torture statistics until they’ll pretty much tell you what you want to hear (governments have been doing this for years) but think about what you really need to know, or you’ll just end up reinforcing a thesis that will collapse at the first puff of third party interrogation.
  3. Don’t get bogged down with the numbers, use them as fodder for something bigger and use your spread sheet or database to cross refer e.g. How many (column 1 – type of person) of (column 2 –  age range, income bracket) are doing (column 3 – activity) and so on.
  4. Go back to the data source and present your findings for a reaction and to make sure you’ve got the sums right.
  5. Don’t forget the harder-to-pin-down qualitative stuff – this will put meat on the statistical skeleton so bear in mind when designing your database or spreadsheet.

As you go on the story will start to tell itself. If you can maintain a level of objectivity you might end up somewhere unexpected.

Finding data is easy, once you know where to look and, if the information isn’t readily available, use the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act . But here’s a caution from someone who has been on the receiving end of a lot of FoI requests in her time – take time to frame your question. If it’s too vague or too wide ranging it’ll be impossible to answer.

You should also be aware that if it’s going to require a lot of manpower to answer, the organisation in question is entitled to make a reasonable charge for this, so be concise. You can always follow up with another request if you don’t get what you need the first time around. Organisations also don’t need to provide information about third parties that can be deemed sensitive. For example contract tenders that haven’t been decided, accounts figures that haven’t been audited.

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