“People have to stop seeing a number as an established fact”

Adriana Homolova

Adriana Homolova is a Dutch data journalist with roots in Slovakia. She studied data journalism at the University of Tilburg and focuses on corruption. She is also project leader of El.vis: map me tender, a project about public spending. Homolova has been coordinating our pre-conference Hack Day for three years now.

 This year’s hackathon will be all about exploring public tenders from more than 30 European countries. As a journalist, you can learn what questions you can ask tender data and how to find stories hidden in the data. Hack Day offers you the possibility to go home with a potential story. Programmers and coders will assist journalists with storytelling and (data) visualisation.

What do you think of Hack Day and the EIJC & Dataharvest conference?

The pre-conference Hack Day and the conference in general is quite unique. I think it’s nice that the conference focuses on data. The event is rather informal and with a hands-on approach. It’s so different from other conferences because it does not take place in a fancy hotel. There is a more relaxed setting, which is why it feels closer to my heart. For me, it’s almost like coming home. I would definitely recommend the event to everyone in the journalism business.

How did you become a data journalist?
I obtained a bachelor’s degree in Dutch language and literature and wanted to do something else after that. Then I bumped into a master in data journalism at the University of Tilburg. I got very excited about the curriculum. For me, it’s a combination of being a nerd, being a designer and being a journalist. Before I found out about that master’s program, I didn’t even know something like data journalism existed.

What do you think of investigative journalism itself?
I think investigative journalism is crucial in each and every country. It also differs greatly between the countries. A few months ago, for example, an investigative journalist in Slovakia was murdered. He was investigating farm subsidies, among other things and found some ties to the Italian mafia. There’s a good chance that was the reason he was killed. This is why investigative journalism is so important. If you go to corrupt regions such as Kenya or Nigeria, the resources are really scarce. That makes it very difficult to do research in those countries.

Have you ever worked on a project that ultimately failed?
No. There have been projects that I worked on for a very long time and I sometimes wondered why I was still putting effort into them. There was, for example, an investigation about the European Investment Bank that went on for one and a half years. After a while I felt like giving up because it was such a complicated topic, and I did not understand the financial data. I thought I would never be able to make a decent story of it. Fortunately, we collaborated with an experienced financial journalist who pushed us to go further. We had a good story in the end, but along the way I wasn’t always that positive.

Do you think you will still be doing this in ten years?
I would like to, but maybe not as a freelancer. Being a data journalist in Europe is a lonely job. Some news rooms like The New York Times have a big data team of graphic designers and journalists. The number of people you can learn from is so much bigger. There are lots of things to be learned, which is why I sometimes miss having a senior colleague.

What subjects do you find the most interesting?
Public spending. In Slovakia, the information about that topic is completely transparent. In the Netherlands, however, the government does not always disclose what the tender costs were. I find that odd, because in the end its taxpayers’ money. I’m intrigued by the differences in public spending in various countries. It’s very important to know what our money is used for and I think there are a lot of stories in there.

My project El.vis started out as my master’s thesis and is something of which I am quite proud. I wanted to find out if we could map corruption by investigating public spending. I met the Romanian programmer Victor Nitu at Dataharvest and teamed up with him. He was eager to join and is now our software developer. Along the way, we invited a few other people on board. We are currently working on the project with a team that consists of five people.

Do you think the presentation of data can be improved?
I don’t think the presentation itself can be improved, but people have to stop considering numbers as an established fact. People tend to use statistics in their arguments, but everything depends on the methodology. If you count how many people go to school in a certain country, for example, you have to be transparent about how you measure and how you got to that number. You can measure half a country or you can measure the entire country, and it will deliver a different outcome. It’s always a matter of interpretation and you can’t always show that in a number. I think that we need to educate people into thinking that way.

On the BBC, there’s a podcast called More Or Less in which they investigate numbers that they hear on the news. They trace where numbers come from and sometimes find out that some statistics just come out of thin air but stick around anyway. Sometimes it’s really funny.

What would you say to people that are interested in following data journalism course?
Please do, we need you! The data literacy of journalists is still very poor. There is a need for qualified data journalists, so definitely go for it. News rooms are starting to realise more and more that they need us.

Register here for the European Investigative Journalism Conference & Dataharvest

Register here for Hack Day.


© Cindy Monbaillieu

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