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Crunching numbers: Data journalism needn't shout to be heard

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 1 August 2016, 10:47 IST

When we turn to our TV news at the end of a long day of work, we're hoping to learn about the day's happenings. Unfortunately, TV news has devolved into a series of shouting matches, where hyperbole and opinion have replaced actual information. In these times of loudness and sensationalism, Talk Journalism 2016 hosted a Catch News session on arguably the most sober form of news - data journalism.

The session - Number crunched: what we learn from data journalism - was originally meant to be moderated by Google's Naman Pugalia and feature Catch 's Sourjya Bhowmick and IndiaSpend founder Govindraj Ethiraj . However, Pugalia had to pull out, meaning the session ended up a two man show.

In no way though, did it affect the quality of the session. After all, Govindraj founded IndiaSpend - India's foremost source of data journalism. Incidentally, Sourjya, Govindraj's co-panellist, got his start in data journalism from Govindraj years ago. As the session progressed, it became evident that the two former colleagues had not lost their love for numbers.

The need to look at numbers

Govindraj began the session by highlighting everything that's wrong with our approach to problem solving . Taking the example of primary education, he explained that while it was easy to criticise a policy, we often miss identifying what exactly is wrong with it . Blanket criticism is foolish and simplistic, but, by carefully examining data, we c an identify the real problem areas.

This approach saves us the trouble of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, instead allowing us to fine tune policy rather than needlessly scrap it.

Right to information

According to both men, India's data journalism efforts only really began in earnest with the advent of the Right to Information A ct. With this, the government was now obliged to reveal information about its various activities and policies. Activists and journalists alike made use of this to access government data.

Prior to this, journalism relied a lot more on inference and opinion. Now, armed with cold hard numbers, journalists could identify specific issues and problem areas. Data journalism had finally arrived.

Surprising results

O ne of the things that has stood out for Govindraj is that while numbers give you certainty, they often give you answers you never expected. Take, for example, the frequency of communal riots in Kashmir. While one might expect this number to be among the highest in the country, Kashmir is among the lowest.

Similarly, after the Nirbhaya incident, when Delhi was being touted as the ' rape capital ' , the numbers showed that multiple cities i n Madhya Pradesh were far worse. Similarly with Delhi's odd-even experiment, where pollution levels rose instead of dropped.

However, Sourjya was quick to point out that context was important, adding, "In Delhi, the pollution not reducing was true, but the factors that caused it to increase weren't cars. They worsened for other facts - wood fire stoves, thermal power plants and the like."

Encouraging numbers

Clearly, data journalism is a tool that can truly serve public interest. However, Sourjya pointed out something important - the lack of data journalism training in


's J-schools. Considering we live in an age where we have increased access to information, data journalism is all the more relevant and impactful.

"Numbers are the future," stated Sourjya. We wonder if India's J- s chool s will one day listen to this wisdom or whether it'll be business as usual until their number eventually comes up.

First published: 1 August 2016, 10:47 IST