Joseph Kasko

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — The use of big data — including information from maps, spreadsheets and large databases — is becoming more important in the field of journalism.

That was the message Gavin Off, data reporter at the Charlotte Observer, gave to students during a presentation last month at Winthrop University.

“We’re still journalists, we’re still reporters, but we want to ask the data questions, to pull out information, to write better stories,” said Off, who was a guest on the Palmetto Report.

The Guardian’s reporting on NSA files leaked by Edward Snowdon, Bloomberg’s story on the deadliest jobs in America and the San Francisco Chronicle’s examination of the effect of Airbnb on the city’s housing market are often cited as some of the best examples of data journalism.

Off, who holds a masters degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, also teaches a class on data journalism at Queens University of Charlotte.

“The one thing government is great at doing is storing information,” he said. “We’re beyond the days where they’re just going to have a stack of papers from floor to ceiling. They’re putting that data, that information, into spreadsheets, into text files (and) into database managers.”

The great thing about all that data, according to Off, is that it’s public information, which can be requested by journalists.

Often, he said, data can reveal patterns and tell stories, which aren’t visible without data analysis.

For example, a Charlotte Observer investigation of the North Carolina lottery found that some players were winning at a rate that was nearly statistically impossible.

Some players were found to have won scratch-off games more than 50 times and it was revealed some convenience store owners were winning a lot more often than customers.

“We ran that by statisticians, we ran our findings by lottery experts,” he said, “the experts said ‘yes, something fishy is happening. Something a little bit nefarious is going down.'”

He said newspapers in California, Florida and Massachusetts have conducted similar investigations of their state’s lottery and have found similar instances of fraud.

The Observer’s most recent data investigation examined how courts in Mecklenburg County, N.C. handle weapons crimes.

Off — who has also worked for newspapers in Tulsa, Okla. and Washington, D.C. — estimated that roughly half of new job listings in journalism now require some type of data skills.

“All three news organizations (I’ve worked for) had mass layoffs, but my job was always safe and I attribute that, not because I’m the world’s best reporter but because I knew data skills. I knew skills that other people in the newsroom simply don’t have,” he said.