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Talking with... Simon Rogers

One of the leading voices of data journalism, ready to take up on a new role at Twitter.

May 13, 2013
(photo: Simon Rogers)
(photo: Simon Rogers)

It’s already one of the top stories of the year: after 15 years, Simon Rogers left The Guardian to join Twitter as its first Data Editor. The creator and editor of the Data Blog leaves the UK as one of the most established and respected names in the journalistic field, having his work recognized multiple times, both nationally and internationally.

Last year, Simon received the Royal Statistical Society’s award for statistical excellence in journalism (online category), having been commended by the Society in 2010. His Factfile UK series of supplements won a silver at the Malofiej 2011 infographics award and the Datablog won the Newspaper Awards prize for Best Use of New Media, in 2011. Also in 2011, Simon was named Best UK Internet Journalist by the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University and won the inaugural XCity award from City University.

Another one of Simon’s significant contributions to the data journalism world is the book “Facts are Sacred: the Power of Data“, now with a well-deserved hardback version from Faber & Faber, out this April.

At this time, we can only imagine how busy things are for Simon, so it really means a lot to us to be able to bring you this exclusive interview, for which we thank him.

Visual Loop (VL) – Simon, tell us a bit about how did you first came in contact with the data journalism world? Was it something you credit to your education, or something that caught your attention along the way, during your career?

Simon Rogers (SR) – I guess it came out of my work with the graphics team and the fact that I liked working with detail. So, in the newsroom, I was always the person asked to work with slightly fiddly, complex things, like the education league tables, or a complex spreadsheet. I wouldn’t say it was anything to do with my education – I was never very good with maths, but then it’s nothing to do with maths.

VL – You must have told this story dozens of times, but could you share with us how The Guardian Data Blog was born, and what were the goals back then?

SR – When we launched, it was very straightforward – as a way to simply publish data and make it more accessible. In 2009 when we launched it was just before data.gov in the US and before data.gov.uk so we tried to make the public aware there was data out there that belonged to them. Since then, of course, it’s become more complex.

In the newsroom, I was always the person asked to work with slightly fiddly, complex things, like the education league tables, or a complex spreadsheet. I wouldn’t say it was anything to do with my education – I was never very good with maths, but then it’s nothing to do with maths.

VL – Since then, we’ve seen the data visualization world become almost mainstream, with the spreading of the term ‘infographic’ on the Internet, new tools to create visualizations, and the increasing demand for learning courses – like the last couple of MOOCs by Alberto Cairo, with an impressive audience. What surprised you the most about this popularization?

SR – Just the widespread hunger for people to understand the world around them, to see it in a visual way.

VL – The Data Blog has become one of the references on data journalism, but more important, a reference for Open Data. I can only imagine how exciting it must be to see the visualization projects created with the data sets you make available. Tell us a bit about that experience.

SR – The great thing is that the wealth of free tools has changed the relationship between readers and journalists forever. The data belongs to everyone now and everyone has the power to visualize it. The other nice thing is how it takes you by surprise – months after you post a dataset, someone visualizes it. Even now that I have left I expect it will keep happening.

The great thing is that the wealth of free tools has changed the relationship between readers and journalists forever. The data belongs to everyone now and everyone has the power to visualize it.

VL – And what impacts can we expect in the future with the increasing access to that open data?

SR – I think it levels the playing field for politics – suddenly we all have access to all the information.

VL – The interactive work made by The Guardian has been brought at the same level as other important publications, like The New York Times. Besides The NYT, what other online media outlet has impressed you recently for their interactive graphics and visual journalism?

SR – I love the work of La Nacion in opening up data in Argentina. I also think that WNYC in New York is really awesome and punches well above its weight.

VL – In 2011, you published Facts are Sacred: The Power of Data, telling us precisely about the backstage of The Guardian Data Store, the challenges of data journalism, and how the combination of technology and journalism can provide new insights and impressive stories. How challenging it was to write this book?

SR – Some of the book is just gathering together posts – but around half was new chapters, specially written – especially for the new hardback version (and enhanced iPad edition), both of which look amazing.

VL – Another important contribution for the consolidation of data journalism inside newsrooms was the Data Journalism Handbook , already being translated in several languages. What can you tell us about that experience?

SR – This was an amazing project that was really driven by Liliana Bounegru and Lucy Chambers. It was easy for me just to talk through what we did – they made the real effort in getting all these voices together.

VL – Recently, you launched your own site, simonrogers.net. Congratulations! I’m sure it’s nothing you haven’t thought about before, so why now?

SR – I started the Datablog almost as a personal site – and it was the result of a lot of work, so leaving it behind is really hard, even though it’s in great hands with James Ball, Ami Sedghi, Mona Chalabi and John Burn-Murdoch. But now it’s just so much bigger than one person.

VL – Yes, there’s a huge change on the way, right? After 15 years at The Guardian, a new opportunity in San Francisco, with Twitter! Can you already share something about the role you’ll be taking and the challenges you’ll be facing?

SR – I can’t talk too much about the specifics of my new role – not least because I haven’t started yet. But Twitter and the way we use it is something crying out for telling stories with the data – and telling stories with data is what I do best.

Twitter and the way we use it is something crying out for telling stories with the data – and telling stories with data is what I do best.

VL – Thank you so much, and good luck in this new challenge, Simon!

SR – Thanks!

We thank Simon for dedicating the time to answer these questions, and wish him all the success in this new endeavor.
Visit Simon’s new website for great content about data journalism, and follow him on Twitter (@smfrogers) for constant updates.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.

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