• The modern journalist: 4 cool data tools

    Media Hack new media tools The modern journalist: 4 cool data tools
    The modern journalist: 4 cool data tools

    new media tools

    The modern journalist: 4 cool data tools

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    News about big print media is pretty miserable at the moment but, if you’re willing to look beyond the immediate troubles facing the industry, being a media worker right now is about as much fun as it has ever been. Especially if you don’t mind messing around with a little technology along the way.

    New media tools are emerging every day so keeping your journalist toolbox up to date can be tough. Here are a few tools worth playing around with and perhaps adding to your arsenal.



    Crowdmap is a simple mapping tool that can be used to track geographic reports about just about anything. It’s built on the Ushahidi platform which was originally built to monitor election violence in Kenya.

    Crowdmap can be used to collate reports from around a country (or even globally) and map those onto interactive maps. Monitors (and citizens) can log reports using the web, email, SMS or any of the smartphone applications available. Incident reports can include links to video, websites and other data as well as the standard location information.

    Crowdmap is a fantastic tool for both online and print newsrooms because it can be used to track just about any kind of geographic data. So, for example, field journalists could file reports of strikes, floods, fires, election results directly to your maps. With the data collected production staff can then either integrate the resulting maps, including time lapse ones, into websites or use the maps for graphics for print. Large organisations may want to investigate a full Ushahidi setup but for first-timers Crowdmap is a great entry point.

    This is an experimental map I created to map petrol stations that had petrol available during petrol industry strikes. It may not be the ideal tool for this particular application but it does work. (click to visit the original site)

    Open Heat Map


    Another great mapping tool for journalists is OpenHeatMap. While Crowdmap focuses on collating incident reports, OpenHeatMap takes spreadsheet data and turns it into coloured heat maps. So, for example, data on HIV infections in South Africa can be illustrated on a map if the source data is available. OpenHeatMap can also produce a time lapse illustration to show how data changes over time.

    OpenHeatMap is easy to use and works well together with something such as a Google Docs spreadsheet. Heat maps can be embedded in online articles or used as the basis for illustrations.

    This is an example of OpenHeatMap in operation ion which I mapped some data on HIV infections in South Africa onto a map:



    Journalism is all about telling stories and many of today’s stories take place (at least in part) online and through social networks. It doesn’t matter if it’s the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, a plane crash or a labour congress, very often participants and observers post comment, pictures, video and audio online.

    Enter Storify, a fantastic tool for searching this online river and moulding it into a coherent stream. The free service makes it easy to find Tweets, Facebook updates, YouTube videos, Google searches and Flickr images on a particular topic and “mash” them up into a timeline of events.

    You don’t have to be an expert programmer, a propeller-head or hold a degree in multimedia to pull together a coherent stream. It is an easy drag-and-drop operation. You can include just about any online stream of information and combine those with your own text to provide context or continuity.

    Storified stories can then easily be embedded into other sites using simple HTML.

    Storify is equally useful for journalists working in print because is makes it easy to capture streams of information and re-arrange them into something coherent. This way Storify is an excellent wireframing tool for creating story outlines.

    This is a Storify sample in which I logged reports about violence in Uganda: (click to go the original).

    Google Fusion Tables


    Google has a huge collection of free online tools to slice and dice data just about any way you can imagine. Among them is Fusion Tables, a relatively simple tool to upload, merge, share and visualise large volumes of date. Essentially its a super-powerful spreadsheet with some clever enhancements.

    With Fusion Tables you can upload your own tabulated data (or use other publicly available data), merge it with other tables and then visualise the results in a variety of ways including as mapped data, charts, timelines or even storylines if you have the right kind of data. The results can then be embedded into your website using simple iframe tags, which Google provides for you.

    And if that sort of thing grabs you then another Google project will be right up your street: Google Public Data Explorer. The data explorer is a collection of publicly available data that provides for hours of entertainment if you’re into manipulating data. Here, for example, is one example, using the World Bank’s Development Indicators, to illustrate life expectancy in South Africa compared with the rest of the world: World Life Expectancy.


    Are there tools worth including in this list? Let me know with an email to alastair@mediahack.co.za or @alastair on Twitter.

    Written by Alastair Otter

    Data visualisation & design, journalist, hacker.


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