This space is changing

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Since I started writing in this space a few years ago, there have been huge changes to the small but mighty corner of journalism we have called computer-assisted reporting. It has gone from being the technically-complex preserve of a few hardy, analytic souls who toiled away in the back corner of, usually, print newsrooms, to something almost anyone can do using free, cloud-based tools.

While there remains a high-end analytical end of the CAR “biz,” just about anyone who can drag and drop a file can now summarize data, create charts and visualizations and map community trends. Those of us who spent years doing the CAJ conference circuit, spreading the gospel of using spreadsheets and database managers to find great stories, can only marvel at the remarkable growth in data journalism techniques in the past five years.

While higher-end data work used to be driven mostly by investigatively-minded journalists , today a whole new generation of hacker journalists has emerged. More likely to have got started in BASIC than in basic reporting class, this new community of journalists isn’t constrained by the conventional boundaries of what constitutes reporting and storytelling.

And while the battle for access to government data started with traditional CAR practitioners pushing for access to datasets to use privately to produce public journalism—indeed, competition to be the first to nail a key dataset and publish stories was central to the competitive ethos-- today there blossoms a vigorous open-data movement that seeks to free vast stores of data, making it widely available for everyone for the greater public good.

The result is an explosion of opportunities for almost anyone to use data tools to produce work that once would have required long fights for government data, and learning tools with steep learning curves.

All of which is a long-winded way to say that this space is evolving as well. When I started, the assumed audience was largely the converted, those who were already familiar with data tools and topics. But with the rapid shift toward data as something everyone can use, without having to learn how to use complex data software, this space is evolving as well.

We’ll still tell you about new trends and developments, great data projects and new software. But for the next while, I am also going to focus on data journalism for those who may never have used data tools before. I am going to show you how you can leverage various cloud-based tools to do simple analysis and create professional visualizations, where you can find data without having to fight the long fight and how you can bring all this to life on the web.  Along the way, you’ll hear about various data concepts, and be initiated into some of the lingo of the trade. I am going to assume that the reader knows little or nothing about data. In other words, this won’t be the sort of high end course offered by IRE or the annual King’s Summer School in Data Journalism. Instead, we’ll call it data journalism for beginners, then see what evolves.

We’ll start in two weeks today with that most dominant of online players, and how you can use Google Docs to make sense of stuff you find online.

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