Connected China*, our gorgeous site/app (hey, I’m entitled a little pride here) that tracks and analyzes power in the Middle Kingdom, reflects that fact as well, despite having been launched before he formally took on this additional position. (Not that this was a surprise – but it wasn’t official until recently.) But what it means is that we updated the database (and hence the site) when the news was announced. That’s not remarkable – right?
That may seem like a strange question. After all, shouldn’t data-driven apps offer the most up-to-date information to users? Certainly many do, especially those that take in regular feeds of government and publicly released data. But many data-driven projects – and especially heavily editorially curated projects such as Connected China – often don’t; they’re generally built to stand as a snapshot of a moment in time, not to be a constantly updated resource. There are exceptions – Politifact and Homicide Watch among them – but they are exceptions. Most big projects analyzing reams of data and providing stories and analysis aren’t designed to be updated. But shouldn’t they be?
That’s not to say that such projects don’t serve a real public service – they absolutely do. The Washington Post’s analysis of a decade of homicides in the capital is great work. But while it provided a great picture of what had happened before 2011, it wasn’t set up to let readers figure out how things might have changed in the last year or so – arguably equally relevant and important information to current residents of DC.
To be sure, it’s not easy to build sites that continue to be updated, unless it’s through a quasi-automated feed of official data. Deep analysis requires time and effort to clean data, hunt down outliers, check and double-check findings, and so on – tasks that can’t easily be automated or done by humans on deadline or as part of daily workflow. And in a world of finite resources, if your best data journalists are feeding data into an app, they’re not out creating more value-added analyses and stories. Plus, some projects just aren’t suited for continuing updates – perhaps the key, broader point has been made, or that new data simply isn’t easily available.
Still. It seems – at least to me – that there ought to be more thinking about how to build data-driven sites/analyses that are regularly updated. There are good reasons to do so, not least that in a world of finite resources, it makes sense to focus on doing things that have a long shelf life rather than projects that live for the moment. More importantly, keeping data up to date potentially serves more readers/users better, and that should be a core part of any news organizations’ mission. (Although that’s not a given.) It won’t be easy, and will almost certainly require getting the newsroom involved in updating the data; having data journalists do it isn’t cost-effective. But trying to build a site that can tap into the newsroom’s existing workflow – or change the newsroom’s workflow so that updating data is part of regular work – is challenging, to say the least.
Nonetheless, that’s the premise of structured journalism, and with Connected China, it’s a step closer. I hope.
* Best on Chrome or Safari or iPad; don’t try on Explorer.