I like to think that I’m pretty good at recognizing trends. One thing that I’ve been seeing a lot recently in my interactions with the newsroom is that we’re no longer exchanging Excel spreadsheets, Word files, and other binary blobs via email. Instead we’re sending invites to spreadsheets and documents on Google docs, links to data visualization sites like Swivel and ManyEyes, and links to maps created with Google MyMaps.
Using these lightweight webapps has definitely increased productivity on several fronts. While as much as we would love every FOIA request and data source to come in a digital format, we constantly see data projects start with a big old stack of paper. Google spreadsheets has allowed us to parallelize and coordinate data entry in a way that just wasn’t possible before. We can create multiple spreadsheets and have multiple web producers enter data in their copious spare time. I did some initial late night data entry for the KU flight project (Jacob and Christian rocked the data visualization house on that one), but we were able to take advantage of web producers to enter the vast majority of the data.
Sometimes the data entry is manageable enough (or the timeline is tight enough) that the reporter or programer can handle it on their own. In this case, it allows us to quickly turn quick spreadsheet-style data entry in to CSV, our data lingua franca for data exchange. Once we have the data in CSV form we can visualize it with Swivel or play with it in ManyEyes. If all we’re looking for is a tabular listing of the data, we’ve written some tools that make that easy and look good too. On larger projects, CSV is often the first step to importing the data and mapping it to Django objects for further visualization.
Awesome webapps that increase productivity aren’t limited to things that resemble spreadsheets from a distance. A few weeks back we had a reporter use Google’s awesome MyMaps interface to create a map of places to enjoy and avoid while traveling from Lawrence, KS to Miami, FL for the orange bowl. We pasted the KML link in to our Ellington map admin and instantly had an interactive map on our site. A little custom template work completed the project quite quickly.
It all boils down to apps that facilitate collaboration, increase productivity, and foster data flow. Sometimes the best app for the job sits on the desktop (or laptop). Increasingly, I’ve found that those apps live online—accessable anywhere, anytime.