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Coding is expensive and slow, journalism should be cheap and fast. This is the main problem I face as a data journalism producer.

My responsibility is to produce news apps for Helsingin Sanomat, a main daily newspaper in Finland. When there is a breaking news event, we have about five hours to come up with an idea, get the data and publish the news app.

In most cases it would be too slow to start from scratch.

To overcome this problem, we have been creating kind of a Style Book for data journalists. The Style Book contains a set of News App templates we can modify and publish very fast.

Ideally, we just insert new set of data to template and publish it. This can be done in five minutes, although it usually takes more time.

Common example of this approach is a map made with Google Fusion Tables. You can put your data into Fusion Table and have a working interactive map in less than ten minutes.

The templates we use are mainly built by our data desk. We try to make every new News App so generic that we can use it again as a template.

The Style Book is currently a page on our internal Wiki. All our journalists can access it from our intranet. It lists some 20 templates at this point.

Below, I’ve listed some of the templates we use. Links are to live versions of News Apps we’ve made using the templates.

Timeline. Based on TimelineJS, this is very fast way to show news as process. This particular example is about the crisis in Gaza.

Animated graph. Based on the Hype tool, this is a Flash-like animation to show almost any content. This particular example is the results about our questionnaire to racism scholars: how many of you have received threats because of your work.

Animated quotes. This is built by our data team. It shows a set of quotes in a loop.

Counter. When there are tax hikes, benefit cuts, etc., we can show the results of these changes to our individual reader. Just tell us your salary and some other details and we’ll tell you how this affects you. This example by our data team shows the effect of tax hike on electricity based on how much you use.

Interactive maps. This is perhaps the most common news app we publish. We use Leaflet to make our maps. This one shows how many children there are compared to kindergarden places in different regions of Helsinki.

Fourfold table. This is a tool to get opinions from our readers. We ask two dimensional question: Is the new Music Centre beautiful or ugly, necessary or unnecessary. If the question is good, this really gets audience. This example is about new stadium planned to be built in Helsinki.

Graphs. For standard graphs we use Datawrapper, and Tableau Public. Each has their merits and problems. All are quite fast to use. This example is about comparing supercomputers.

Forms. To ask questions from our readers. Google forms are good. We also use custom made tools when we want to have more contol over the visual side and time is not an issue. This example asks what kind of razor you use.

Scorecards. This is useful tool to present sports teams, companies, etc. as a user-friendly, sortable database. This example is about ice hockey teams in Finland.

Voting tools. If we want our readers to vote on some issue, we have a custom tool for that. This particular example is about proposals for a new bridge in Helsinki. Which one is best?

Roll-over images. A tool to show how things have changed in time. We overlay two images on top of each other and the user can roll them back and forth. This example is about old postcards: Helsinki 100 years ago and in present day.

Special layouts for web. The Helsingin Sanomat magazine has large features each month, and we publish some of them in web with special layouts. We use all of the templates we have in these versions. This example is about living a month as muslim.

If you are interested in our work, all our news apps can be found here:

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Esa Mäkinen is a Helsinki-based data journalist, at Finnish daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, and the founder of HS Open data journalism hackathons.

5 thoughts on “Use Templates to Make News Apps Quickly”

  1. Some great examples of your work there… Curious to learn if you all have written about how the projects were created, or posted any of the code used in the projects? I’m eager to learn more, especially about the Fourfold table…

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