Image source: The Datajournalism Handbook

Data journalism is changing the scope of government and political reporting – from city hall to the capitol. And graphics applications are transforming the way news organizations illustrate these stories. Even small news organizations are gaining access to powerful data visualization tools.

Just five years ago federal and local government agencies hoarded data. Journalists had to dig deep to get access to the numbers that revealed agency performance. News organizations struggled to turn government numbers into compelling graphics to accompany news stories.

In 2008, statistician Nate Silver brought a spotlight to data journalism when he predicted the results of the presidential election with pinpoint accuracy. Posting the results online in real time with eye-catching graphics, Silver launched a whole new way of telling news stories.

Thanks to open data, news organizations are gaining increasing access to free government datasets to illustrate their news stories. Beginning in 2006 with the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, the open-data movement advocates for greater transparency in government.

The U.S. public sector was slow to take up open-data principles. Launched in 2009, the government Web portal spurred the movement on. City governments soon followed the federal government’s lead.

Local governments faced technical challenges to sharing data. Lacking database programmers on their staff, governments turned to the private sector for help publishing their performance numbers. Two companies now dominate the public sector data portal market.

Socrata is a Seattle-based database developer. By 2010 it had a growing following in the public sector. City governments like the City of Austin hired Socrata to open up their huge databases to the public. Meanwhile the Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network (CKAN) open-source data portal platform is the basis for

In the newsroom, journalists writing on issues connected with government often look first to government Web data portals created by these two companies. But tables of data can’t tell a compelling news story. Data visualization software and info-graphics turn the dry tables of government numbers into eye-catching graphics.

In the early days of data journalism, journalists worked alongside database programmers and designers to find and display the data behind a story. These teams began creating interactive mobile apps and Web graphics that would let news consumers interact directly with the data.

A leader in this effort, the U.K.-based Guardian News and Media (GNM) set up one of the earliest data journalism teams in a major news organization. The nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica leads the field in data journalism focusing on U.S. government data.

Software languages widely used by coders now include tools for creating graphics. Adventurous and tech-savvy journalists are exploring the tools to create data visualizations and info-graphics for themselves.

As a service to other news organizations, ProPublica offers its news app code, tools and data journalism tips free of charge. GNM also makes its info-graphics tools available on its website. These tools take most of the coding out of info-graphic design.

These data visualization tools give even the smallest news organizations the high-powered graphics capabilities once reserved for journalism’s giants. News startups and bloggers can now create eye-catching graphics based on data drawn directly from government-generated spreadsheets and user inputs. Pie charts, timelines, sliders and interactive maps are becoming the new norm to illustrate city and capitol beat news stories.

(Reprinted from The Journalism Biz blog.)