Here’s a little known fact about data journalists: While they are masters at creating compelling stories with data and making that information accessible, they are not, by and large, coders. That means that data journalists rely on the expertise of developers to create the graphics just as much as journalists with no background in data rely on them. For publications working on a daily news cycle, that system of reliance can slow everything down.
That insight is the result of the decades Duncan Clark spent working as a data journalist for publications like the Guardian, before founding the award-winning interactive studio Kiln. For about a year, Clark has been working with computer scientist and mathematician Robin Houston to launch a Kiln offshoot called Flourish, a platform for non-coders to make compelling infographics easily and efficiently. Hoping to fill the need Clark experienced, Flourish’s first user case will be newsrooms. Today, the startup is launching an initiative in partnership with Google News Lab to get the program into newsrooms around the world.
Flourish works similarly to other data viz software suites like Tableau, for example, in that it allows users to log in, chose from a variety of infographic templates, and upload data via an Excel sheet or CVS file. The program will create an graphic displaying the data, which the user can tweak to customize color, style, and additional views. Then users can download it to their own server to publish, or they can publish it directly on the platform so that other journalists or publications can use it or make it their own.
That last bit is what makes Flourish particularly interesting in terms of data visualization tools, and why it could potentially be uniquely useful for newsrooms. The idea is for developers at news publications to be able to use the platform to make a suite of basic templates that will be useful for their own data journalism team—anything from very simple maps and pie charts that meet their style guide, to more immersive interactive infographics. The data journalists and designers—who have an eye for storytelling and data design, but perhaps not the skills of a coder—will be able to build on those basic templates easily and make their graphics more quickly.
They will also be able to hand off tasks to journalists with no special skills in data design—if you need a simple census map, for example, you wouldn’t have to pull someone from your highly specialized data team to do it. Clark points to the New York Times 2020 report, the newspaper’s latest internal strategy report published in January, to emphasize the need for this. In the report, journalists lamented that there were times when they knew their articles would be stronger with a interactive element or graphic, but didn’t have the skills or the resources to add one. “That is true across all newsrooms,” says Clark.
On the flip side, people who do have a highly specialized talent for developing or data viz were not being put to best use. “These places also have amazing [data design] teams, but they are called upon to do basic things again and again,” says Clark.
If publications choose to make their graphics public on Flourish, others could potentially use (and credit) them. Newsrooms won’t want to share their elaborate infographics or projects they design for bigger packages and features, but they also design a lot of graphics for daily news that commuters will speed-read on their way to work. Those can easily be shared and will lessen the load for everyone. “The bigger idea here in a way is that its not efficient for people to be coding similar things and keep to itself,” says Clark.
In that way, Flourish can be compared to open-source sites like GitHub—there are open templates that others can add to or amend for their own purposes, and others can learn from or build upon their work. For now, Flourish is launching just for newsrooms, and with preloaded templates that are all open-sourced, but the long game is to open the platform up to individual users. “Between us [Flourish template designers] and the bigger newsrooms, we’ll hopefully end up creating a lot of interesting templates” that will be useful for others, says Clark. The hope is also that smaller newsrooms that don’t have the data team of, say, the Times or the Guardian, will be able to benefit from the Flourish library.
With Google, Flourish has a partner that is both supporting the platform financially and facilitating the connection to newsrooms—Google News Lab works with news teams all over the world to try to make tools like Google Trends and ngram useful for journalists. In Simon Rogers, data editor at the News Lab and a former Guardian data journalist, Clark found someone who knew the need the tool seeks to meet. “Simon understands data visualization very well but is not a coder, so he understands the potential all these people who have all of this talent but not the coding expertise,” says Clark.
At the time of launch, Flourish has partnered with 30 newsrooms and counting, among them the Guardian and the BBC. While data journalism has found a strong footing in newsrooms, Flourish could potentially bridge the lingering gap between the journalists and the data.