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A short – and subjective – history of data journalism in Finland

June 6th, 2012

In many ways, the Finnish Open Data scene was born three years ago, in 2009. In April of that year, Peter Corbett from Washington D.C. made a visit to Helsinki and gave a presentation on the Apps4Democracy contest he had run in the United States. The same year, the first Apps4Finland contest took place and brought together a group of people interested in Open Data.

In the summer of 2010, data visualization really hit home with the Football World Cup. New York Times, Marca of Spain and a number of other sports sites ran spectacular visualizations. Likewise, data released by Wikileaks initiated a number of infographics on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. New York Times released their news vocabulary in Linked Open Data format. Things were moving ahead fast and people began to take notice in Finland too.

In September 2010, I approached the largest newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, and suggested we started creating new kind of interactive visualizations for them on the Finnish elections and Finnish peacekeepers’ activity in Afghanistan. These early discussions led to some interest on their part but things didn’t really take off. We at Flo Apps were still learning what kind of things media houses were interested in, they were a little reluctant to buy this kind of service from outsiders and they were particularly hesitant about the price: we estimated that creating a full-blown visualization on Finnish troops in Afghanistan, for instance, would run in the 5-figure category (in euros).

In early 2011, however, things started to change rapidly. Out of the blue, Esa Mäkinen – a journalist with Helsingin Sanomat – released a dataset on Finnish authors’ prize nominations. It was a clear signal that Esa hoped someone to do something with the data and we (Flo Apps) grabbed it quickly, creating a simple visualization on the data the same day.

Within a few weeks, Finnish data journalism was born. Both HS and YLE (Finnish Broadcasting Company) had shown interest in utilizing Open Data in their coverage of the Finnish parliamentary election. HS seized the opportunity with Esa Mäkinen organizing the first HS Open event in March 2011. About sixty Open Data activists, graphic designers, journalists, and programmers gathered for a 9-hour sprint to create infographics on current issues. This was a bold statement that HS was jumping on the Open Data bandwagon. In particular, the event was instrumental in bringing together all these data visualization activists who had earlier been working separately. All of a sudden, it seemed there were actually quite a lot of people interested in Open Data and media.

After the first HS Open event, things have taken a more unified shape. Helsingin Sanomat organizes new HS Open events every six months or so. Antti Poikola launched the Finnish datajournalism network. Helsingin Sanomat has continued to push the Open Data agenda both in the paper version and their online presence. Recently, they ran a contest on data visualizations and announced the launch of their in-house datajournalism team. Likewise, the Hacks and Hackers network in Helsinki has been organizing regular meetings on new journalism.

Business models

As mentioned above, early on we tried to sell an interactive data visualization on Finnish peacekeepers’ activity in Afghanistan to both Helsingin Sanomat and the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Neither of them was particularly interested in the idea. Both were worried that the interest the site would generate would not be high enough. Likewise, both parties were alarmed with the price tag we suggested: 10 000 euros and above was way out of their budget.

On several occasions I have heard freelance journalists envision a business plan where they would do the journalism part and someone would code the infographics for them. The problem is, however, spending all those hours writing the story and on coding is not cheap. Sure, using Google Fusion Tables is easy but the end result always ends up looking like Fusion Tables. Creating custom-made infographics with tailor-made look, perfecting usability and honing the interface takes time. And workhours in Europe are not cheap. Prices sour and if the investment is not likely to bring remarkable numbers of visitors to newspapers’ site, the media won’t buy it.

On one or two occasions, we’ve been willing to lower the price just to get the client reference. This spring we were approached by a journalist who was preparing a feature story for one of the largest weeklies in Finland. He wanted us to create some interactive maps that they could have utilized both in the printed magazine and online. I said the price would be starting from 880 euros. The weekly – with a circulation of more than 150 000 – turned the offer down saying it was too costly.

At some point, I also heard a proposal from one of the big media players suggesting, “Create data visualizations for us and if they generate enough hits, we can start negotiating on the price.” I just love this kind of business logic. In the future, I can envision journalists too spending two weeks writing a feature story and only if it gets enough hits online does the writer get paid for their work.

Recently, Helsingin Sanomat suggested a model where they would pay a fixed sum of money each time they (re-)use an infographic created by a freelancer. This would encourage datajournalists to create apps that can be used repeatedly.

The chasm between journalists and programmers

I continue to be a little irritated with the attitude of some journalists. It’s not been too uncommon to hear comments like “Why can’t you guys just program this for me, it can’t be that difficult”. Well, if it’s not that difficult, why not do it yourself?

The problem is, creating high-quality code within tight time limits is not easy. There is not that many people who know how to do it. For every good programmer interested in this stuff, there are at least 10 decent journalists. In most cases, journalists are dispensable, while coders are not.

Another regular chant I hear from journalists is that they want ready-made tools for creating data visualizations. I guess they feel uncomfortable being so dependent on programmers and dream of tools which would make coders useless.

Well, I’m not too confident this will happen. There is already Google Fusion Tables, for instance. The more universal the tool is, the more generic-looking the infographics will end up being. You don’t want your newspaper’s site look generic, do you?

Election engines and other pre- open data experiments

Different “election engines” have been a distinctive feature of Finnish online journalism for years. They are online questionnaires where users answer a set of questions and the engine finds the most like-minded candidates for the user, according to their choices in the questionnaire. The first election engine hit the scene in Finland back in 1999. Lately, Finnish companies have started to export them, with Zef Solutions co-operating with Al-Jazeera and Shadow Election targeting the US presidential election of 2013.

As for the media’s hesitations on spending money on infographics, Esa Mäkinen says the explanation can be traced back to the turn of the millennium. A lot of money was spent on online experiments during the .com bubble but the results were less than satisfying. This time around, in 2012, media companies are much less willing to overspend.

Tips on creating infographics in a small country

I’ve yet to see a freelance journalist make a living on data journalism in Finland. Here are some pointers, however, if someone wants to try:

Finnish is a marginal language. There are only 5 million people who speak it. Media houses are very keen on counting clicks. The visualization must be interesting enough to generate enough clicks for them. Therefore, media houses want infographics that they can reuse in several elections, for instance, to cover the costs of creating the service in the first place.

In Finland, only Helsingin Sanomat, YLE and Suomen Kuvalehti (a weekly) seem to have utilized infographics successfully. Helsingin Sanomat and YLE are also very good at promoting their online services in other channels (on paper in HS’s case, on TV in YLE’s case). For any smaller newspapers, the cost of creating proper data visualizations seems too high. Data journalism outside the Helsinki area is practically non-existent.

Therefore, I suggest, if you are really, really into this stuff, create data visualizations on international topics. With cleverly chosen subjects, I’m quite sure a data journalist from Finland could carve a career for him/herself.

Tapio Nurminen will be speaking on Finnish data journalism at the 4M event in Montpellier in late June.

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