The International Journalism Festival in Perugia

Held in the beautiful Italian hill-top city of Perugia, the annual five day International Journalism Festival, has grown into the largest event of its kind in Europe, with almost 50,000 participants in 2013. The Festival, uniquely free of charge for all participants, is known for its informal and participatory approach.

The Festival is an extraordinary opportunity to listen, learn and network with the many of the best journalists around the world. To name just a few, speakers in the past have included Aron Pilhofer, Emily Bell, Seymour Hersh, Mathew Ingram, Harper Reed, Paul Steiger, and Pulitzer Prize winners Steve Doig and Sarah Cohen.

Since 2012, Open Knowledge International and the European Journalism Centre (EJC) have been invited to run the School of Data Journalism at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. The School of Data Journalism track runs a series of panels and workshops at the festival, designed to introduce data journalism to beginners. In this age of information, Open Knowledge International aims to provide change makers around the world (like journalists and civil society organisations) with the appropriate set of skills and tools to gather, analyse, interpret and visualise data, and turn into useful insights to benefit citizens and society.

In 2012, the Data Journalism Handbook was also launched at the festival. The Handbook was the result of another collaboration between Open Knowledge International and the EJC, with contributions from data journalists from top media institutions, including the BBC, the Financial Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the New York Times.

 

The growing field of data journalism in Italy

In the last the decade, with the traditional model of journalism in crisis, data journalism has caught the imagination of journalists around the world. In data journalism, data - which we can also think of as digital information - can be either the source or a tool for storytelling and at times, may be used for both. With the sheer scale and range of digital information now available and the tools being developed to process this information, it has become vital to journalism and storytelling itself.

Data journalism is still relatively new to Italy, though there is already a small but vibrant and growing community of advocates. Guido Romeo, Data & Business Editor at Wired Italy, has been one of the organisers at festival for the last couple of years, leading various panel discussions and workshops on data journalism. Romeo feels that the School of Data journalism has become “one of the main assets” of the festival.

“I teach in several journalism schools in Italy. You won’t get this sort of exposure to such teachers and tools in any journalism school in Italy. They bring in the most avant-garde people, and have a keen eye on what’s innovative and new. It has definitely helped me understand what others around the world in big newsrooms are doing, and, more importantly, how they are doing it,”

Guido Romeo, Data & Business Editor at Wired Italy

Romeo explained that the School of Data Journalism’s work has been most influential in raising the profile of data journalism in Italy and in helping him and others in Italy to take the necessary practical steps needed to fully embrace the field. He explains that until last year there was not a single newsroom in Italy that had a data journalism unit.

“Data was sort of a geeky, niche thing until a couple of years back, but from 2013, it has become the buzzword because of what we saw in Perugia. Last year, at Wired, we also set up the first formal data journalism unit in a newsroom in Italy,”

Guido Romeo, Data & Business Editor at Wired Italy

Romeo emphasised how inspiring it was, especially for young journalists, to meet the top journalists from around the world and be able to freely share experiences and listen to their advice in an informal atmosphere.

Elisabetta Tola, an Italian freelance researcher and data journalist, has been both a participant and panel speaker at the School of Data Journalism’s sessions. She agrees with Romeo that the School of Data’s journalism’s seminars and workshops have helped inspire journalists in Italy to become aware of open data and enter the field of data journalism.

“Apart from the useful things you learn at the seminars and workshops, the exposure and networking is also very beneficial. Most of my students - I teach in two places, one the School of Journalism and the other a Masters in Science Communication course - were so enthusiastic after the event that they became part of the open data movement in Italy. One of them did her Masters thesis in Data Journalism, others becoming active by attending regular hackathons and things like that, and collaborating with others on data journalism projects,”

Elisabetta Tola, an Italian freelance researcher and data journalist

 

The impact of School of Data Journalism

Having attended the Festival every year since 2006, Tola explained that the School of Data Journalism had added a key ‘hands on’ element to it. While there were a few workshops before 2012, Tola feels that the introduction of School of Data Journalism's interactive workshops has made it much easier for participants to take up data journalism.

“That's the big change - before School of Data Journalism I was mainly attending seminars and lectures at the Festival, and the few workshops they had weren’t really hands on. There wasn’t any chance to do practical exercises. Most people were pretty lost when introduced to such topics. The School of Data Journalism workshops were well prepared, with tutorial materials made available before the workshop, making it easier to practice as we followed along,”

Elisabetta Tola, an Italian freelance researcher and data journalist

Tola continued that getting exposure to some of the free tools available to clean and process data had been very useful in her work. She said that while she had a basic prior knowledge of programs like Excel, at the workshops she learnt how to organise and present data to tell stories.

“I never used Excel with the idea of producing an article out of it. To go from downloading or producing an Excel table, to organising the information in a way that you can extract or produce a story - that’s one of the things I definitely got from these workshops”

Elisabetta Tola, an Italian freelance researcher and data journalist

The tools and skills acquired at the School of Data Journalism’s workshops have given both Tola and Romeo the confidence to expand their range of projects. In 2012, they both collaborated on a project called ‘Safe Schools’, the first large scale data driven investigation into seismic safety of Italian public schools, with Italy having one of highest seismic risk in the world.

“Our broader work was to do with communication seismic prevention and safety issues to the public. Most people in Italy are not aware of these things, because there is no culture, though we get major earthquakes quite often. Earthquakes are an important issue in Italy that needs to be understood and presented properly,”

Elisabetta Tola, an Italian freelance researcher and data journalist


Romeo points out that the School of Data Journalism’s sessions had made them realise that to take up data journalism it was not necessary to have perfect infrastructure or vast resources, and that it was possible to launch these projects despite the limitations they had working in an ill-equipped newsroom.

“The important thing was showing that you can do high quality data journalism even if you are not in the US or UK with big budgets and developers in your newsrooms, or even efficient FOIA laws, etc. In fact its not only open data that we learn to use, we know how look for that data anywhere. In the earthquake story you can hardly define that data as open data, it was in a very bad condition. But we learnt all the workarounds and the tricks to deal with that,”

Guido Romeo, Data & Business Editor at Wired Italy

Since the launch of the Data Journalism Handbook, Romeo, in collaboration with others, has helped coordinated its translation into Italian. A first draft has been produced, and Romeo is working on the final version with the aim of launching it in the upcoming 2014 International Journalism Festival in Perugia at the end of April. He feels its a valuable resource to introduce students to data journalism.

“Its something I always recommend when I talk to journalism students. Data journalism is something so new in Italy and none of the journalism schools have it in their curriculum - to give them a general idea and the first tools, the Handbook is fantastic,"

Guido Romeo, Data & Business Editor at Wired Italy

In 2013, at the Festival, Tola also launched a new data journalism website called datajournalism.it. She felt that data journalists in Italy, most of whom are freelancers, needed a platform to display and promote their work. 

“Its a sort of a lab, a place for journalists to experiment and publish such works. I have many students who have been encouraged and worked on pieces that we published. From that some of their work got published in major news outlets who are hungry for new and innovative things. Its really working well,”

Elisabetta Tola, an Italian freelance researcher and data journalist

Romeo and Tola are both looking forward to participating in this year’s sessions at the Festival, and would like to see more of these hands on workshops that can broaden their skill sets and range of tools to deal with data.

“My only regret with Perugia is that I have done so many panels that I have sometimes missed very useful sessions. With the Festival so successful and an increasing choice of amazing panellists available, this year, I am going to cut down a bit on my own panels, and go more as a student, be part of the audience and learn.”

Guido Romeo, Data & Business Editor at Wired Italy