Lessons in innovative Olympic data journalism

Alberto Cairo and Simon Rogers, The Data Journalism Podcast
19th June 2024
16:00 - 17:00

The speakers

Ahead of the Paris Olympics we welcomed two data journalists to share how this medium can be used to illustrate the stories coming out of the summer games. Alberto Cairo is a visualisation consultant, trainer, and art director and is the Knight Chair in Infographics and Data Visualisation at the University of Miami. Simon Rogers is a data consultant at Google and Adjunct Professor of Data Journalism, Northwestern University. He is also the author several books including Facts are Sacred. Both speakers co-host the Data Journalism Podcast.

Watch the seminar 

Five takeaways from the talk and the discussion 

1. If you are approaching data visualisation for the Olympic Games this year, look for the humanity of the games. Data is often seen as clinical and cold whereas the Olympics can be one of the most human sports events we collectively experience. Both Cairo and Rogers advocate for a marriage of the two by looking for stories that showcase the humanity of the games through data. 

“Has your work been designed by a computer or has it been designed by you as a journalist? Are you telling the story or is the computer telling the story?” asks Rogers. “Data isn't abstract. It's not like something that has nothing to do with people or humanity generally. So bring that in especially with a story like the Olympics because it covers so many different angles: it's about socio economics, it's about sports, it's about human achievement, it's about politics, it's about cash, it's about everything.”

2. Go beyond stories about sports performance, into everything else that encompasses the Olympics. Speaking of angles, the Olympics is so much more than just stories about sports. As Cairo and Rogers describe, they are a reflection of a particular place, at a particular time. Both speakers advised journalists to look beyond the sports angle, and take a look at the socio economic, political, historical stories that hide beneath the surface of the games. 

“How do this year’s Olympics reflect the current times? We will look anywhere. For example, there is an increasing interest in environmental issues and LGBTQ issues, so there is something to be said about representation in the Olympics. How do they reflect the present moment?” says Cairo. “And also, how the place where the Olympics are going to take place has changed or how is it going to be changed? Is that change positive? Is it negative? How are they going to react to the games? I believe all this is also quite important.”

3. Put the reader at the centre of the visualisations you create. Just because data is numerical and often abstract, it does not mean it can’t be fun for the reader. Cairo and Rogers, for example, said that a way to do it could be by creating visualisations that put the reader at the heart of the games. 

An example they gave is allowing readers to be in control of the visualisation or letting it play with it as if they were in the place of the athlete which increases reader engagement and makes it more fun for them. They pointed to a game the Guardian created for the 2012 London Olympics that allowed readers to see if they could be medallists in some of the races. Aside from that, they also said that putting the reader at the centre of data journalism is also about questioning what your goal is as an organisation.  

“The fun component is almost like the most important thing, but also what's important for you as an organisation? So if you're a small newsroom, you don't have resources, what is important for you? Is it to relay medal information? Is it to have a commentary take on it? Is it to have visual fun – something that will go viral or something that people will love on Tik Tok? Or is it what is it that you're trying to do? Sometimes people just dive into it and let a million flowers bloom without really thinking about what's strategic for them,” said Rogers. 

4. Don't be afraid of handcrafted and hand drawn visuals. Cairo and Rogers are big advocates of showing the humanity and emotion of data by presenting the data in visually interesting ways, such as hand-drawn visualisations. Imperfections in hand-drawn visualisations add flavour and personality to the overall display you are creating which draws the reader in. “That imperfect style, created by the human hand, has a lot of value in my opinion, and they become really warm,” said Cairo. “Data visualisation is very cold, very cool, but things that are made by hand are crafted, they become more valuable.”

5. If you need to, create your own datasets. More often than not, there are constraints when it comes to obtaining data. Whereas that data be gatekept by the powers that be or there is an exorbitant price tag to obtaining that data, Cairo and Rogers recommend different methods to tackle these challenges which include collaborating with other newsrooms, reaching out to experts or academics, starting with smaller steps, and pressuring people to give you access to the data. However, they also say that sometimes journalists need to take matters into their own hands. 

“Depending on how big the data set is, sometimes you need to fill in the gaps manually,” said Cairo. “When it comes to beginners in this field, sometimes people expect that data is going to be out there ready to be used and cleaned and ready to be visualised. And that is not the case. I always refer students to watch the Spotlight movie where there's a scene in which you can see the reporters from the Boston Globe essentially writing back data from books, copying data from printed records onto a spreadsheet and spending months doing that.”

The bottom line

When approaching data visualisation for the Olympics, focus on the humanity of the games by integrating socio-economic, political, and historical stories alongside sports performance. Engage readers by placing them at the centre of visualisations, allowing interactive and fun experiences that reflect the current times and issues. Use handcrafted visuals for warmth and personality, and don't hesitate to create your own datasets or collaborate with others to overcome data access challenges.


Join our free newsletter on the future of journalism

At every email we send you'll find original reporting, evidence-based insights, online seminars and readings curated from 100s sources - all in 5 minutes.

  • Twice a week
  • More than 20,000 people receive it
  • Unsubscribe any time

signup block