“A must-know for all journalists today”: Kuang Keng Kuek Ser on data journalism

Recent disruptions—especially the coronavirus pandemic—make visualising and synthesizing data essential to breaking news and better informing consumers and the public at large. 

Illustration by Charise Arter

Kuang Keng Kuek Ser has been an advocate for data journalism in Southeast Asia since 2015, when he founded DataN, which trains newsroom staff. Based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, DataN’s clients include the BBC, Channel NewsAsia, Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal, and Sin Chew Daily. 

Kuang Keng started out as a reporter in 2005 at independent news website Malaysiakini. As a Fulbright scholar he pursued a master’s degree on media innovation at New York University, followed by a fellowship at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. 

Earlier in June, he spoke to Chloe Lim about why data journalism matters more than ever in our world today. 

Chloe Lim: Why is data journalism important today? 

Kuang Keng: Governments, political parties, businesses, civil societies all use data to understand their situation or problems better, and to find the right solutions. Be it for formulating new policies by governments or generating more profits for businesses, data is essential for people to achieve their goals. As journalists, our main job is to report about and inform our audience about what is happening in the world today to help them to make better decisions in their work and day-to-day activities. It hence becomes our responsibility to understand data, as a tool or resource used by the public that examines how decisions are made, and how they will impact their lives. We need to inform the change in the current world, which is highly functioning on data. This is why I believe that for journalists today, data is something that you must understand, you must use and you must be able to explain it to your audience in order to fulfil your tasks or your responsibility as a journalist.

CL: How have we seen data journalism at work recently? 

KK: The COVID-19 situation has really shown us how important data is. Governments have to make decisions whether to lock down their cities, when to lift these lockdowns, and how to provide economic stimulus to their citizens, businesses. These decisions are made by looking at data. For the public, we’ve become increasingly concerned about numbers and data during this time, and we want to know how the virus has been spreading from one community to another. What are the number of cases today? Have we managed to flatten the curve?—these are the questions we are asking with regards to COVID-19. Without data journalism, lay readers might not understand which stage we are at in this pandemic, and if our governments are making good decisions to open up the economy, and specific industries etc. Data journalism during this time has allowed us to explore many new concepts, such as the R0 number, which can inform us how many people a COVID-19 patient can pass the virus to. Charts and statistics allow us to compare the progress of different countries with COVID-19 real-time. Journalists therefore, by understanding and using data in stories, are informing the public of all these things we want and need to know, and offer a check and balance to the work of governments, businesses and institutions responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CL: How did DataN come about?

KK: I started DataN five years ago, after I finished my Master’s in Journalism at New York University. I believed that I could play the role of training and mentoring local journalists in newsrooms to use more technology in their reporting. I started by designing a basic training syllabus on data journalism, and later developed wider action plans to help newsrooms embark on data journalism projects. This involved setting up the workflow of the data journalism team at newsrooms, CMS infrastructure and fact-checking training. We currently work with over 10 newsrooms, and have trained more than hundreds of journalists, especially in Southeast Asia. We mentor journalists, their data projects, and our programmes vary in durations from six months to a year. One of the main partners that we work with currently is Google for their Google News initiative. We’ve been working with them in this region for the past three years, and have conducted both offline and online training for journalists in the fields of data journalism, fact checking, as well as just general digital tools for journalists to make their reporting more efficient. 

CL: What is the best and/or easiest way to get started in data journalism? 

KK: Dealing with data is going to be the new normal moving forward. I understand that some journalists might encounter some resistance to technology, coding and programming, but this will be less so in the days ahead. Kids are exposed to coding, programming at a very, very young age now. At some point, every journalist is going to have to learn how to read data analytics from social media platforms, how to tweet strategically, and the most effective way to write a headline using data etc. So for those that are saying understanding data is very hard, think about how resistant people once were to social media technology, but are using it so widespreadly today. 

CL: How can aspiring journalists build their career in data journalism?

KK: Google Data Journalism online courses are a great way to build skill sets quickly and effectively. I would also recommend subscribing to newsletters from institutions such as the European Journalism Centre, Global Investigative Journalism Network, etc. Start looking at the work from the data and graphics teams from international and regional publications such as the Wall Street Journal, South China Morning Post, Malaysiakini and the Straits Times, and the way they approach issues from a data perspective. You can examine their methodologies and skills, techniques, and tools in producing data-driven stories.  

CL: What more can be done in the field of data journalism? 

KK: More investments by media organizations, training and mentoring in the field are still deeply needed, especially in Asia. Data journalism is still not mainstream in Asia; only the leading news organizations in the region are engaging in some forms of it. As more countries in Asia have more limited media freedom compared to the West, this affects the development of journalism, and as a result, data journalism as well. 

There has been more progress in places such as Taiwan, a big reason being the higher levels of press freedom. Raising awareness for more press freedom, and support from civil society and the public on why we need independent/free media today would therefore be helpful in advancing data journalism. 

CL: What is the future of data journalism?

KK: Looking closely at the trends in North America and Europe, newsrooms have their own data desks/teams and will be using more and more data from governments and businesses to tell their stories. That will be the trend in Asia too, especially after the pandemic. Many businesses, including media, during the COVID-19 pandemic realised that they had to engage in digital transformation as soon as possible because the pandemic made it such that people could only consume information online. Companies are therefore digitizing, and putting their resources into online technology and online content to remain competitive. Newsrooms must be ready for this, and journalists will be expected to be data-literate and technology savvy. As data journalism is fuelled by what is online/internet technology in nature, I predict that there will be a lot more resources and awareness on using data in journalism in the coming months.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

In June, Keng conducted a webinar on Data Journalism with the Google News Initiative. You can find the link here.

Chloe Lim is a rising senior at Yale-NUS College.