Human-Oriented Data Journalism

Data lie in every aspect of our daily life, even in what we wear; this is why I used data coming from the world of fashion to tell people the story of what is happening to our mother Earth because of our clothes.

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These labels –all coming from my own clothes– were the first source I used when I first started collecting data on the environmental impact caused by the most produced fabrics.

I have been always interested in data and the way they serve journalism. That is why I chose to focus my Journalism Master’s thesis on a data journalism project that involves data visualizations and data-driven interactives. Yet my main intention was to create content that connects people with data they encounter in their daily life –data that they often do not pay attention to­– and reveal them the information hidden in those data. During the fall of 2017, while studying and research on data journalism as M.A. student at the Annenberg School for Journalism at the University of Southern California, I happened to read the data journalism report published by Simon Rogers, data editor at Google, on NiemanLab that stated:

[…] most of the journalism itself hasn’t changed as much as you’d think: It still mostly covers politics, it’s still labor-intensive and requires big teams, it’s still mostly done by newspapers, and it still primarily uses “pre-processed public data.

After reading these words I started wondering whether the majority of journalists realize that data are the product of our lives and therefore are everywhere, not just in numbers or statistical indexes. I admire, for example, the Google News Lab series, because they tell data-driven stories that try to connect data to empathy. Indeed, I think that data-driven journalistic stories too often fail to truly engage readers because the journalists working on them are concerned more about the analysis, the numbers, and the digital tools that they use, rather than the stories they are telling, and this doesn’t allow them to focus enough on the human side of the data. I believe we, as journalists, in order to truly engage readers, should realize more that data is a representation of reality and we don’t work with data just for the sake of them. Behind algorithms, statistical calculations, and numbers, there are always stories about people and our world: Data are not just raw statistical materials, and data visualization is not a mere graph anymore; in my opinion they are the languages and the means that journalists should adopt to find and tell stories that explain the world around us from a new perspective.

I started understanding how crucially data interact with journalism thanks to my former job as junior data analyst at accurat, a data-driven design and information firm. Working side by side with great and inspiring information designers, web developers, and learning from Accurat’s creative director giorgia lupi, allowed me to understand the actual nature of today’s data and how they might be used in contemporary newsrooms to re-design news and improve the dissemination of information. Following Lupi’s projects, such as Dear Data or Data Items and her definition of Data Humanism, as well as other interesting journalism-oriented projects developed by other designers, such as The Stories Behind a Line, or the award-winning Kantar Information is Beautiful Contest On their Way: The Journey of Foreign Fighters, I started thinking of a way to bring their approach and perspective on data into the field of journalism. That is why, for my Master’s thesis, I pitched a data-driven story that features data that we have to deal with every day but we don’t realize they exist.

Beyond the Labelsthis is my project title—, seeks to push the boundaries of data journalism in two ways: first, it aims to bring data journalism into fields, such as fashion, where it has never used before; secondly, it aims to utilize a kind of data-driven reporting based on both quantitative and qualitative data that are hidden behind our daily life.

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While I was doing research, I interviewed many people in different malls and stores in LA, where I used to live, as well as in New York, when I visited, and in Milan, my home city. Specifically, I took this picture in Milan over the Christmas Holiday on December 2017.

Behind our garments there is a realm of information coming from different fabrics and materials that we use to literally “design” ourselves on a daily basis. Even though we may not realize it, clothes and accessories have a strong impact on society because they communicate subtle visual messages that influence the people with whom we interact. Even the Museum of Modern Art, in the fall of 2017, dedicated its first exhibition since 1944 to fashion, showing the 111 of history’s most famous garments and accessories. The exhibition named Items: Is Fashion Modern? was created to reveal and discuss the links that connect fashion to people’s culture and lives.

Indeed, our clothes are a great lens through which reading many aspects of our society. I realized that especially over the fall 2017, when I had the chance to attend a series of panel discussions on sustainable fashion. I was especially impressed by an event that took place on Thursday, November 2nd, 2017 at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism titled: Ethical, Sustainable and Slow: Changing Fashion’s Priorities. One of the speakers was the environmental responsibility manager for Patagonia, an outdoor clothing brand known for its activism against pollution and supporting environmental issues. He showed the audience a very confusing infographic full of numbers, notes, and information that was supposed to portray the fabrics’ complex supply chain worldwide and its bad consequences on the environment. Yet, because of the lack of clarity in how the information was depicted, the visualization failed to convey its data.

We are usually not aware of the myriad data that are behind our garments: the number of purchases we make, how many fabrics compose what we wear, how they are produced, how they impact the environment… Researching and visualizing this information seemed to be a way to tell people what is happening to the environment because of our clothes. In fact, in my opinion, through compelling examples and powerful storytelling, journalists have the responsibility to collect, interpret and organize information to make it understandable for readers. This is also true for data-driven stories: all of today’s journalists must gather information, filter it, and design it in order to help people to make sense of complex issues. As Mirko Lorenz, Co-founder and CEO of Datawrapper, stated in the essay Why Journalists Should Use Data? featured in the 2012 edition of The Data Journalism Handbook:

This is why data journalism is so important. Gathering, filtering, and visualizing what is happening beyond what the eye can see has a growing value. The orange juice you drink in the morning, the coffee you brew: in today’s global economy, there are invisible connections between these products, other people, and you. The language of this network is data […].

This is the reason why for months I read reports and analyses issued by the main institutions and organizations –such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition­– that collect data from the fashion industry. Spending time collecting those data and creating my own spreadsheets helped me to have a better sense of the stories that lie behind our garments. Indeed, although I certainly knew the many issues existing behind the fashion industry’s supply chain (especially the humanitarian crisis created by what is known as fast-fashion), I was not aware of the enormous environmental problems created by our increasing number of purchases, and of the environmental impact caused by the manufacturing process of the fabrics most commonly found in the majority of the garments produced.

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The image shows part of a the data-driven interactive I developed for my story in order to engage readers with data.

Yet along with all the downsides related to fashion, while researching on this topic I also discovered a plethora of data concerning innovations and new avenues available to the fashion industry to be more sustainable and eco-friendly. I did not want to tell a story of only bad news. That’s why, although addressing issues such as consumerism, waste and pollution, I also wanted to tell the hopeful story of innovation and progress that is occurring today.

The fashion industry provides a lot of information on how to reach sustainable practices in the textile manufacturing. In the last few years, many institutions, such as the TextileExchange and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, have incentivized the discussion around sustainability in fashion in order to help companies, as well as their customers, achieve a better understanding of the impact of fashion on the environment. They have also developed tools, such as the Higg MSI, and created new initiatives to share data and increase companies’ awareness of sustainable techniques and methods in order to re-think the way garments are produced. Unfortunately, this information — a huge quantity of data — is read primarily by experts in the field because it is usually provided through tables, raw numbers, and graphs that don’t reach the consumer: this seemed to me another important reason to report on this topic and spread this information to people.

Additionally, my investigation into this type of data coming from the world of fashion revealed unexpected sides of today’s culture. In fact, one of the purposes of my story is to have readers pay attention to details they usually overlook and to use fashion as a mean to allow them to reflect and gain, through the lens of data, new insights into the dynamics, such as the economic or cultural ones, influencing our world and our behavior as human beings.

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If you are interested in this story, you can read Beyond the Labels here

Data Strategist IBM. “The most valuable commodity in business today, if people would only recognize it, is enthusiasm” –R.J.

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