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Simon Rogers of Google: “Don’t stay somewhere you’re unhappy”

One way to embrace data is by hiring data journalists or by getting trained in data journalism. I co-taught a free online course in data journalism and visualization last year with the Knight Center which more than 12,000+ journalists across the world participated in. Data journalists can make data easier to understand and more relevant […]

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One way to embrace data is by hiring data journalists or by getting trained in data journalism. I co-taught a free online course in data journalism and visualization last year with the Knight Center which more than 12,000+ journalists across the world participated in. Data journalists can make data easier to understand and more relevant to people’s lives by showing impacts at a local level and making them relatable.


As a part of our series about “the 5 steps we can take to win back trust in journalism” I had the distinct pleasure of interviewingSimon Rogers.

Simon Rogers is a data journalist, writer, speaker. Author of Facts are Sacred published by Faber & Faber and a new range of infographics for children books from Candlewick. Now Data editor at the Google News Lab, Simon previously edited and created guardian.co.uk/data, an online data resource which publishes hundreds of raw datasets and encourages its users to visualise and analyse them. He has also been a news editor at The Guardian, and was formerly Twitter’s data editor.


Thank you so much for joining us. Before we dive in, our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you share with us the “backstory” about how you got started in your career?

When I decided I wanted to be a journalist, somewhere between the first and second years of primary school, it never occurred to me that would involve data. Now, working with data every day, I realize how lucky I was. It certainly was not the result of carefully-calibrated career plans. I was just in the right place at the right time.

Adrian Holovaty, a developer from Chicago who had worked at the Washington Post and started Everyblock, came to give a talk to the newsroom in the then Guardian education center on Farringdon Road in London. At that time I was a news editor at the print paper (then the center of gravity), having worked online and edited a science section. The more Holovaty spoke about using data to both tell stories and help people understand the world, the more something triggered in me. Not only could I be doing this, but it actually reflected what I was doing more and more. Maybe I could be a journalist who worked with data. A “Data Journalist”.

So, 11 years later, here I am in California as Data Editor at the Google News Lab. What does a data journalist at Google do? I get to tell stories with a large and rich collection of datasets, as well as getting to work with talented designers to imagine the future of news data visualisation and the role of new technologies in journalism. Part of my role is to help explore how new technologies can be matched with the right use cases and circumstances in which they are appropriate and useful. This role also involves exploring how journalists are using data and digital technologies to tell stories in new ways. For example, in one recent project, El Universal’s Zones of Silence, demonstrated the use of AI in journalism, using language processing to analyse news coverage of drug cartel murders and compare them to the official data, the gap between the two being areas of silence in reporting — and we helped them do it, through access to AI, APIs and design resources.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

I always loved Richard Scarry books as a child and how they would make sense of complex machinery or organisms through accessible drawings and humour. Similarly cutout books from Dorling Kindersley were a huge part of my childhood reading — and something I read a lot with my kids now.

My father gave me Point of Departure by journalist James Cameron (not to be confused with the famous movie director) when I was a teenager and I just absorbed myself in it. He was a terrific journalist who managed to be present at many of the key moments of the last century, from the war in Korea, through atom bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean. He was a traditional newspaper journalist who evolved as the century developed into documentaries for the BBC and a column in The Guardian. It wasn’t his adventures in war zones that made me want to become a journalist so much as the humanity in the way he wrote. There was an emotional connection he could create between you and his subjects that really spoke to me. There might seem a million miles between data journalism and Cameron’s writings but there is one quote of his I use a lot (it’s actually from TV, so this is cheating a bit):

‘Cameron Country’ was shown on BBC TV in July 1969. In it he visits Nasa in Texas. I love this film — and the language he uses as he worries about the role of Nasa’s computers and the diminishing importance of the people there — the software, as he calls them.

This is the longer version of the quote I often use:

Once upon a time the world was a realm of unanswered questions and there was room in it for poetry. Man stood beneath the sky and he asked “why?”. And his question was beautiful.

The new world will be a place of answers and no questions, because the only questions left will be answered by computers, because only computers will know what to ask.

Perhaps that is the way it has to be.

I think the best data journalism does take from that approach — for all its dystopian futuristic nightmare images Cameron worried about. The fact is that now we can ask questions of data in ways we never could before.

But it works at its best when it’s combined with the storytellers, the modern day Camerons. What if we could always tell the data stories behind their human ones? Surely it would only make them stronger.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

This is tough — I always worry that things I find interesting are only fascinating to me. I’m lucky in that I get to do cool stuff pretty often through my work, whether it is being at the party conventions in the last election or working with El Universal in Mexico to use AI to analyse cartel homicides data.

I suppose if I had to pick one story which really shaped my career, it would be working on the London Riots project with Paul Lewis and the whole Guardian team. I’ve always wanted my work to feel relevant to my life and this was one moment where we would be compiling data and reporting during the day and then having to get home through riot torn London at night. It turned into a huge project involving forcing government departments to give us real court reports and analysing them and turning them into a front page story in about three days flat. It was exhausting and so exciting to hear a story that we had put together end up on the news the next morning, all from data we had compiled. I heard later that the government was convinced we had a mole as our data analysis was so accurate and I’ve always felt happy about that.

Can you share the most humorous mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson or take away you learned from it?

I’ve learned a lot from stuff that happened to me before I became a data journalist and one of the weirdest was from one of my very first jobs. I had just left j-school at City University and was freelancing for a news agency. I wasn’t great at it but would volunteer to do absolutely *anything*. So I was given the worst of all jobs — sitting on a train platform timing train arrivals so that they could do a story on inconsistencies in timetables or something. It was absolutely miserable work and it was made worse when I got back to the office and found out I’d recorded all of the times completely wrong. So I had to go back to the platform to start the whole thing over again. I learned a lot from that experience.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

In terms of supporting local data journalists amid the pandemic, there are a few resources we’ve published:

Google Trends Coronavirus Search trends page: This page has embeddable data visuals and real time trends updated constantly to give people a sense of how the world is searching for the virus. Also, make sure to follow us on @GoogleTrends for the latest updates.

Daily data downloads: This data is published on our Github page and has a daily pull of the top towns and cities searching for Coronavirus and the top related searches.

As for the Google News Initiative, We’re also supporting the JSK Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University and Stanford’s Big Local News group to create a global data resource for reporters working on COVID-19. The new project will collate data from around the world and help journalists tell data-driven stories that have impact in their communities.

As part of this project we have launched the COVID-19 Case Mapper to make it possible for local journalists to easily embed up-to-date Coronavirus map visualizations on their sites for readers.

Unlike other coronavirus case maps, the Case Mapper project allows local reporters to embed a map of their area or even the national case map. The map shows cases in relation to population — it’s colored by numbers of cases per 100,000 people, and shows you the severity of outbreak by the number of people in each region, making it easier to compare where you live to the country as a whole.

As for the election, the Google News Initiative also partnered with Truth & Beauty to build Waves of Interest, a free data visualization that shows Google Search Trends data by state for dozens of different issues, such as “pistol control,” “income tax,” “health care,” and more. I am particularly passionate about this project.

What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?

For me, it was less being worried about stress in the moment — in fact I was pretty driven by the pressure of having to do ten impossible things in a ridiculously short period of time — and I still am. It’s more about giving your brain space to breathe. Now for instance, I take a walk every day, often with my children, and the dog and we talk about anything other than my work. When I get back, I’m refreshed enough to start again. I really need that.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main parts of our interview. According to this Gallup poll 45% of Americans trust the mass media. As an insider, are there 5 things that editors and newsrooms can do to increase the levels of trust? Can you give some examples?

  • There are definitely more than five things, but because it’s my area of expertise, I’ll focus on the need for editors and newsrooms to embrace data.
  • One way to embrace data is by hiring data journalists or by getting trained in data journalism. I co-taught a free online course in data journalism and visualization last year with the Knight Center which more than 12,000+ journalists across the world participated in. Data journalists can make data easier to understand and more relevant to people’s lives by showing impacts at a local level and making them relatable.
  • Data analysis has always been subject to interpretation and disagreement, but good data journalism can overcome that. At a time when belief in the news and a shared set of facts are in doubt every day, data journalism can light the way for us, by bringing facts and evidence to light in an accessible way.
  • I’ll share another example of how journalists can use data to build trust, in the context of COVID-19.
  • We’ve seen a lot of choropleths out there around the virus. A choropleth is a map where different places are shaded in different colours. They show a normalised data point across a region. That means you can compare one place to another, regardless of size. For Coronavirus, I have seen a lot of maps out there — and I’m not going to name names — which use this kind of mapping technique to show raw numbers. It doesn’t tell you anything useful at all really — if you want to know how significant something is for a place, it has to be normalised by the number of people that live there. So, cases per million population would be totally acceptable — or you’re really just showing a population map. That’s why, unlike other coronavirus case maps, the Case Mapper project built by Pitch Interactive with support from the Google News Initiative shows cases in relation to population — it’s colored by numbers of cases per 100,000 people, and shows you the severity of outbreak by the number of people in each region, making it easier to compare where you live to the country as a whole.

As you know, since 2016, the term ‘fake news” has entered common usage. Do you think this new awareness has made a change in the day-to-day process of how journalists craft stories? Can you give some examples?

Basic journalistic skills are the best defense we have against misinformation — properly checking stories and sources as much as we can. The difficulty is that *anything* can be faked by anybody — whether it’s an image or a video recording to a level that we need to be much more deliberate and skeptical in going forward. My main tip is that Google Trends can be a great way to find misinformation and how much it is taking hold. Many news outlets now actively use it to do that and it can make a huge difference to detecting it early.

Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Be the one to find the job in your outfit that everybody knows needs doing but nobody wants to do.
  2. Don’t rely on others to develop *your* career — you have to be in charge of it.
  3. Opportunities often emerge in the most unlikely places; make sure to keep your eyes open.
  4. Don’t stay somewhere you’re unhappy, just make sure you’ve done what you can to fix it first.
  5. Always ask the question everyone is thinking.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Data journalism has evolved so much to become such a standard tool for all newsrooms but I would love to see a movement to encourage better data storytelling. The best data journalists use their journalism skills and build on them with data skills. I’d love to see a movement to do that and especially by bringing more voices from across the population into data journalism. Data journalism can change the world for everybody, it should reflect everybody too.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am @smfrogers on Twitter!

Thank you so much for your time you spent on this. We greatly appreciate it, and wish you continued success!

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