Wonder Tools — Google's New Journalist Studio
How and why to use a new suite of Google research tools
This is the 33rd Wonder Tools post on useful tools for creativity and productivity. I’m Jeremy, a journalist & director of teaching & learning at CUNY’s Newmark J-School. Before joining CUNY to teach, I was a reporter at Time, where I would have loved to have had access to the toolkit I’m writing about today. I write independently, sharing with you what I find useful.
Google recently launched Journalist Studio, a toolkit with free reporting and data visualization resources. The tools are easy to use, well-designed and immediately applicable to big reporting projects and small research inquiries. Some of these tools have been around for a while, so part of this launch is just glossy repackaging.
Pinpoint is the most valuable part of the toolkit. It provides you with a free digital hub for storing and analyzing massive datasets of documents, emails, audio files, handwritten notes and more. You can store up to 200,000 documents in each collection, and up to 100gb overall. Request more space if you need it.
But it’s not Pinpoint’s storage that’s most valuable. It’s the analysis the platform enables, which can help you spot subtle data patterns or anomalies. In exploring a giant collection of FBI documents on Martin Luther King Jr., Pinpoint helped me pick out specific references mentioning both Ghandi and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with other keywords I chose.
Pinpoint doesn’t ask the questions for you, but it makes it easy to query data efficiently so you can explore lots of angles. It’s super fast and free of extraneous menus or features, so you can focus on analyzing the materials you’re reporting on without having to learn complex new software.
Pinpoint can transcribe audio recordings to help you locate key moments, pull text from images, or extract text from handwritten documents to make them digital and searchable. These are crucial capabilities if you’re exploring a collection of old letters, notes, or recorded meetings or interviews.
Telling great stories with data requires multiple steps. The process often starts with a question. You find data, clean it up, organize it, pore over it, analyze it and look for patterns. You spot anomalies. You identify inflection points. You visualize the data, contextualize it and present it.
Doing all of that work manually on a giant dataset without machine assistance can be a prohibitively tough task given the constraints today’s reporters are under.
As a junior reporter at Time Magazine I had the opportunity to assist the great investigative journalists Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. I saw the tremendous effort those giants poured into their work in the days before digital resources like this were available. Going through stacks of documents manually was something that took days—or weeks.
Pinpoint doesn’t in any way replace the need for great investigative insight and effort. It just lets committed journalists point computing power at some of the more mundane aspects of document exploration, like searching for term references, transcribing audio and digitizing old documents. That frees up valuable time and attention for deeper digging, and for following up on connections you find.
In addition to drawing on your own private data sets, you can start with 16 data collections from partners like the Washington Post. These are included to help you learn how to use Pinpoint. Among them are the Mueller investigation court filings, JFK assassination records, FBI files on Ronald Reagan and more than a decade of congressional financial disclosures added by the Center for Public Integrity.
For any journalist on the receiving end of leaked data, evidence of corruption, or secret audio recordings, Pinpoint provides a crucial new helping hand. In her recent public announcement, Megan H. Chan, Google’s News Ecosystem Lead, noted that the collection is a response to a question her team had asked: “What would it look like if we put the best of Google’s search, AI and machine learning technology into the hands of reporters?” As the former director of digital operations at the Washington Post and Politico’s director of digital product, Chan brought a reporting perspective to the question. Now it’ll be up to reporters to find value in the tool. Pinpoint is gradually opening up to journalists. You can request access here.
What tool has been useful for you lately? Please share it in this one-question form
The Common Knowledge Project is a much simpler tool in the suite, primarily for visualizing data impacting your local community. It’s useful in its own way, mainly for creating simple charts drawing on any of its billions of data points.
To create a chart, you just follow a few steps.
First, select the location you’re interested in (within the US for now). You can pick multiple places if you’re seeking a comparison.
Then pick the type of data you want, within categories including demographics, economics, education, health, crime. Focus on something such as the unemployment rate, the percent of people living in poverty, or local arson.
Pick a time span —between 2012 and 2018 for now— and a chart type: line, area, slope, bars, stacked bars, bars over time, or US map.
Save your chart and print it or download a .png picture or .csv spreadsheet file. Or share a link to the chart or embed it on a site. Here’s an example of a simple chart created quickly with the Common Knowledge Project chart tool.
The Common Knowledge Project tool was made by the Polygraph team, the amazing data designers behind the Pudding. To see creative data journalism design in action, check out Pudding stories like this one on how police complaints are investigated in Philadelphia, or this one, a brief history of the past 100 years as explored through the NYTimes archives.
In addition to these two new tools, Journalist Studio bundles in a variety of other existing Google offerings, including:
Data Commons helps you combine publicly available data across multiple open sources such as census.gov, cdc.gov, data.gov.
Fact Check Explorer lets you search fact checks about a particular topic or person.
Google Trends is full of interesting seeds for potential trend stories
Project Shield is a free service to defend news, human rights and election monitoring sites from DDoS attacks, which are used to censor information by taking websites offline.
Flourish, a terrific tool for creating data visualizations even if you’ve never made a chart in your life. I may offer a guide to that in a future post.
If you’d be interested in a lunch session exploring these tools, fill in this quick form with your email. If there’s sufficient interest, I’ll schedule something.
Thanks for reading,
p.s. As a reader of this newsletter, you’ve invited to a free lunch salon session I’m co-hosting next Tuesday, Nov 24 at 1pm ET with Diogo Rodriguez called Dawn Til Dusk: Well-Being Routines for Sleeping and Waking Up. It’s not related to today’s post, but it’s related to my earlier post about sites and apps for well-being. We’ll share specific things we find useful, and gather resources from those present. Free RSVP here.