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News à la carte

Unfortunately, governments do not yet have an internet page with a button: “download all statistical data here”. Too bad, because combining data with digital maps can lead to some remarkable results, says Arlen Poort (Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad). But anyone with half a knack can already find quite a lot of data.

The VVOJ is counting down to the European Investigative Journalism Conference in Brussel op 21 en 22 with a special interview series, introducing the upcoming trainings and workshops. This week: Arlen Port’s CAR training ‘News on a map’.

By Arno Kersten

NRC Handelsblad recently published a fine example of infographs. When presenting Ahmed Aboutaleb as new mayor of Rotterdam the newspaper ran a map of The Netherlands showing the political affiliation of all mayors.

In absolute numbers CDA (Christian Democrats) provides most mayors, but factor in the number of residents and PvdA (Labour) takes the cake.

The data behind the map was provided by “” (a government website), which – according to Poort is “a decent source for up-to-date data”.

By slightly modifying a previously written script, he was able to extract from the website exactly the information he needed, in a file format and encryption he can use.

“That way it is a matter of minutes before I have downloaded all Dutch mayors, including their affiliation, gender and zip code.” Such an identification code, an ID, is required in order to combine the data with the map of cities.

Those maps of cities have become something of a tradition at NRC Handelsblad. Programmes suited for this kind of geomapping tricks are often expensive, but there are cheaper (Manifold) and free open source alternatives (QGis).

Poort has focused his CAR-training ‘News on a map’ at the entry level, meant for students with a basic knowledge of Excel and Access. Collecting data on the internet is the subject of a second CAR-training Poort organizes in Brussels: web scraping.

Another example is the map of coffee shops in Rotterdam. After it was declared that coffee shops must be located at a minimum distance from schools, as determined by the cities themselves, Poort and his colleagues created a map displaying all registered coffee shops.

“We had set a perimeter at five hundred metres around each school”, says Poort. Those five hundred metres was the standard already applied in The Hague. “That made it instantly clear which coffee shops would be too close. All in all not very difficult, just research anyone can do at their own news desk.”

Poort would like to see more journalists doing this kind of data processing. “If more people request the data they need from the government, government departments will be forced to publish data, which in turn would make it normal that all sorts of data is available to anyone.”

According to Poort, the fact that so little colleagues are involved with computer assisted reporting on a higher level or data processing, is typical of journalists.

“They are almost all alphas. They shrink from computer functions beyond word processing. In many colleagues I see a fear of using Statline from the Central Office for Statistics, even though it contains lots of information needed on a daily basis.”

Poort: “That’s why I provide training, as I do at VVOJ Conferences: I hope to take some of that fear away.”

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