Best of Freedom of Information: Data and the Suggestive Power of Visualization

The corona crisis is also a data crisis. Seldom have so many people argued about the interpretation of data as they do now – data on R-values, incidence values, death rates and excess mortality cause tempers (presumably also in the comments to this article).

Free information is a prerequisite for democracy. Hence: The “Best of Freedom of Information”, every two weeks, by Arne Semsrott. He is the project manager of FragDenStaat and a freelance journalist. He works on the subjects of freedom of information, transparency, lobbying and migration policy.

Criticize it especially data journalists the publication policy of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), which, even a year after the start of the pandemic, has not really got used to providing the data that it collects in such a way that it can simply be used further.

Some nerds in journalism have therefore built data pipelines around the institute in order to automatically process the published data, for example on incidence, so that they can actually be used for visualizations and analyzes. Data journalism projects currently do a large part of the educational work about the corona virus, trends and the effectiveness of government measures.

Some calls are made that the RKI should ensure that it builds better visualizations of its data itself. How wrong it can go, however, when the RKI visualizes its data itself, became apparent a few weeks ago when the RKI simply left out a crucial part of diagrams on the transmission paths of the corona virus – namely that for most transmissions it is not known whether they happen at work or while shopping.

The really good visualizations of the corona data should therefore continue to be sought in journalism, not in the state. The RKI should reflect on its core task and ensure that at least all of its data is openly available. Incidentally, all other authorities should also orientate themselves on this.

The EU border agency Frontex, for example. Not only does it regularly publish figures on irregular border crossings into the EU, it also supplements the data with visualizations – not with bar charts, but with arrows on maps.

Risk Analysis for 2020

(Image: Frontex)

Hordes of people storm towards Europe, like Frontex in his most recent annual report suggests, the numbers are quickly forgotten – even if they actually fall compared to the previous year.

With its visualizations, Frontex is evidently not about clearing up soberly, but rather about influencing the public debate. As an EU authority, Frontex is by no means a neutral actor. The agency draws its gigantic budget to combat migration. It is therefore tempting to constantly talk up the threat posed by migration, much like the way the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has to justify its budgets with ever new threats.

Need another example? Although the number of irregular border crossings into the EU has decreased from 2020 to 2021, they still look just as threatening on Frontex maps. Frontex has simply increased the number of circles from one year to the next, despite falling numbers.

(Image: Frontex)

Professor of Political Geography Henk van Houtum explains in a detailed report that the representations by Frontex in particular, but also by other authorities, are not as neutral as they seem at first glance Article on Frontex cards shown.

He also describes how visualizations could be made more neutral, for example by using different display colors, softer colors and comparisons with other numbers. A faster way, however, would be to take their cards away from the authorities and send them back to databases. There is journalism for visualizations.


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