DJ Showcase: Times of India (03 September 2014)

The Times of India’s regular STATOISTICS column in its print edition is a consistent effort to popularize infographics based stories. A good infographic, says visualization guru Albert Cairo, should be beautiful, functional and insightful. Most of the TOI infographics are beautiful and functional. But the “insight” or the “story” is often missing.

What’s a story? Something that is unusual (“man bites a dog”), counter-intuitive or in the other extreme, establishes something that people have somehow believed but there is no direct evidence.

Rarely does a great story comes from one source. You may get an idea. But then, you make a hypothesis, test it out by getting more information from new sources or verifying some of the already obtained information.

Data journalism is no different. Once in a while, if you are lucky, you can get a good story from a single dataset. You have to juxtapose a couple of datasets; may be some investigation is required. The “insight” or the “USP” of the story often comes from that. Even some basic observations about exceptions, predominant trend are a good starting point.

Look at this infographics

Almost in all food items (and these are not basic food items like rice, wheat, vegetables or dal) urban India outscores rural India. That is not surprising per se. But there are exceptions. Fish is something where rural India scores. Apple remains primarily an urban fruit while tropical fruits like guava or mango (the desi fruits) are consumed equally by rural and urban India.

A good starting point for a great story is often: why? And this (or any single) dataset won’t answer that. Some of the best data journalism ideas come from single datasets, but great ideas need great execution to make them great stories.




Which state is India’s biggest drinking state?

Data journalism is journalism first—and last. Basic principles of good journalism applies to data journalism as well. One of those fundamental principles is to check credibility of information. It starts with knowing where to get the most authentic information on a particular topic. Yes, even in the days of Google.

This story in The Hindu,  by Rukmini S, one of the very, very few practicing data journalists in India, beautifully illustrates that.

The topic is alcohol consumption in different states. And the context is Kerala’s decision to move towards prohibition. Some basic research, as the euphemism goes for Google search, convinced the media that Kerala is indeed the top per capita alcohol consuming state in India. And what can you beat it? The top drinking state heading towards prohibition…

But is Kerala really India’s most drinking state? It took a real data journalist to ask that question and bust the myth.

As Kerala takes the first steps towards prohibition, here’s a question: is Kerala really India’s biggest drinker? The media sure seems to think so; here’s the Times of India, saying so today (but giving no source), The Indian Expresssaid it in 2008 but the source study is nowhere on the internet and the Economist said so in 2013citing a Kerala-based advocacy group director. Various other reports cite Kerala’s 2008 Economic Review but this isn’t available online either.

Anyone who has any interest in tracking consumption pattern in India would know that the biggest agency that tracks that info is National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) under Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, through its various “rounds” of surveys. Rukmini used that data to prove that it is not Kerala but Andhra Pradesh which is the biggest drinker.

Despite being a great reminder of what should not be passed off as data journalism, the story fails to excite. A simple and direct headline like “And you thought Kerala is the biggest drinker” could have been far more direct than a text-bookish headline like “India’s biggest drinkers.”

Nevertheless, it assures. That data journalism in India is in good hands.