The risks and rewards of data power

Posted on 08/06/2011


The rise of the ‘infographic’ has been a long time coming.

At a recent Claremont Communications event at the RSA, Guardian news data king Simon Rogers, pointed out that the first ever edition of the then Manchester Guardian in 1821 dedicated a significant chunk of one of its pages to a table of deprivation in the city.

Since then, data has been used, abused and exploited by the media and communications professionals to tell stories, visualise complex numbers and re-enforce arguments.

But in the last few years, social media has triggered a whole new re-appreciation of the role of data in communications.

Infographics, such as those from Information is Beautiful have spreading like wildfire. Not just in traditional and online media sources, but through social media. ‘Crowd sourcing’ data sets, such as the MPs expenses, or the Wikileaks information have helped news organisations re-connect with their readers. And citizen journalism, coupled with the Freedom of Information agenda, has brought even more data to the public view.

But while data power is undeniable (for more on the benefits, see the Claremont blog), there are three big risks communications professionals should consider before embarking on a data-led story:

1. Privacy breaches

As one of the delegates at the seminar pointed out, if you give the media access to information down to postcode level, you may inadvertently identify vulnerable people. For example, data on those living at home with disabilities could be exploited by burglars, data on those with HIV could identify a child and cause bullying at school. Before releasing any data to the media, communicators need to weigh up if the data is safe to release – or if the benefits of releasing outweigh the cons.

2. Misinterpretation

Media outlets would love to be handed non PDF data sets to play with. Social media users would love to crowd source the data. But, the minute this is allowed, the host organisation loses control of the messaging. So, I still don’t think we’ll see a sudden mass movement toward open releases of, say, polling results used to generate news stories. Let alone more sensitive data sets (for example, the Alzheimer’s Society Dimentia Map could have gone so wrong had the data just been released on mass to the media without careful story construction and interpretation the Society gave it).

3. Accuracy

By their own admission, newspapers sometimes get facts wrong. They correct mistakes online and print a clarification if it appeared in hard copy. Whoops. Sorry. Easy. If a communications professional released data which turned out to be inaccurate, they would lose the trust of the media. It may even create a scandal. If a politician does it, it can mean resignation for the individual. The stakes are high. So before releasing data, make sure you understand it. Understand if it has been manipulated to create the desired message (and if this manipulation is acceptable – and will stand up). And then double check it.