Published by Dutch Journalism Fund (Dutch)
There is no lack of idealism with Michael Kreil, CEO of the Berlin based start-up Data Science and Stories. “There are so many things you can do with technology. It is no longer a question about how you put a printed article online, but how technology makes it possible to tell stories and gives the power to the readers.”
Michael Kreil’s passion started seven years ago. “It was then that we heard that phone providers save the locations of mobile phones for six months”. Kreil received the data from politician Malte Spitz and made a visualisation of all the places he had been. “When we showed him the visualisation, he said ‘This is terrifying, we need to publish this’. After the publication on Zeit Online, the law in Germany was adapted and ever since the location is saved for only two weeks.”
After this success in 2011 OpenDataCity was established by Kreil. In the following years OpenDataCity made visualisations for ZDF, Der Zeit and Der Spiegel, but also for companies like Deutsche Bahn. OpenDataCity won more than 15 awards in the span of five years, from Prix Europe to the World Summit Award from the United Nations, but there were also difficult times.
The purpose of data journalism
“We always had to convince the media of the purpose of digitalisation and data journalism. We offered a first project relatively cheap, so they could try us out. Thanks to a high number of visitors on the website, awards and articles taken over by the New York Times, newspapers started seeing the importance.” After that, newspapers often wanted to do data research in-house and OpenDataCity became unnecessary. The team went down because of their own success.
OpenDataCity was split up and Kreil contemplated his future. Google offered him a job, twice, but both times he rejected the offer. He approached Der Tagesspiegel, who was interested in an award-winning team of data journalists. “We work here because we want to work here. I can make a lot more money, but news organisations offer jobs where people can do something good.”
Seen as an IT department
Since November 2015, he has innovated journalism from the inside out. Data Science and Stories is a department from Der Tagesspiegel, but operates completely independently. “If the newspaper comes with research, we look if we have the time. With other newspapers, the data department must adjust. There could be the danger of the data journalism being seen as an IT department. You instruct data journalists to do research or make a tool which makes it lose the journalism side.”
“With Data Science and Stories, we do the same as we did over the last five years; we conduct research for the media and the business sector. The collaboration with companies means that we can do a lot of new things. Now, we are creating data visualisations of corporate data on big touch screens at the entrance of an office building. OpenDataCity had more opportunities to generate income. MyVideo, for example, paid 18,000 Euros to have a link on our website for a one year period. We could have done more with that, but with OpenDataCity I had three jobs simultaneously: I did programming, looked for new clients, and was project manager. Now my team members can do what they are good at.”
Conflict of interest
“The difficult part is that we are journalists as well. It can happen that you come across something you want to write about. BMW, for example. They save all the data of cars they produce. We must ask ourselves if we want to make a nice visualisation for BMW about the data of those cars. On the other hand, as journalists, we want to inform users of the car that documents what happens 24/7. We have not figured out how to deal with this and have rejected clients. We do not want to close the door on collaborating with corporations, NGOs or the government in advance.”
“It can be very hard to change a traditional newspaper. I think the only way that works is starting from scratch in a company, like we did. Companies like Google and Apple also have internal start-ups. I have not figured out yet what part of our work is actual journalism. Like the visualisation we made of the size of the Stasi archive, in comparison with NSA (if all the data were to be printed). Data journalism is a lot more than just visualisation. It is also tools and projects, like we have created. The only rule is: there are no rules. It is a new area and you need to figure it out for yourself.”
Photo by Anrike Visser