How to: plan a journalism project that needs data entry

The challenges of data entry projects

First, it’s worth outlining just what challenges data entry projects present.

Tip 1: Sketch out the table structure(s) to avoid having to repeat work

A project involving data should store that data in the correct format. So, let’s be clear: that means a spreadsheet — not a Word document (yes, I’ve seen FOI projects where journalists have collated the data in a Word document).

  1. Name of company owing money
  2. Date
  3. Name of company owed money
  4. Agreement owed under

One table — or multiple tables?

Tip 2: Add columns to your table plans for attribution and checking, notes and newsworthiness

Once you’ve planned out the fields in your table, make sure you add a column titled ‘entered by’.

  • If it is actually an error — or the data is what it seems;
  • What may have caused any error;
  • Whether the same mistake has been made by the same person elsewhere.

Columns to check the data

  1. Liabilities amount
  2. AMOUNT CHECK
  3. Name of company owing money
  4. Company number
  5. Date
  6. DATE CHECK
  7. Name of company owed money
  8. Agreement owed under
  9. Source

Creating the table — and the checking columns

Create a spreadsheet and type your column headings across the top.

Tip 3: Formatting columns to avoid bad data entry

We want to make sure that data is formatted correctly to avoid the following two common errors:

  • Dates being stored as text
  • In Google Sheets: select the whole column, then click on the Format menu and select the Number menu. This will open up another menu where you can specify the format you want (in this case, Plain Text)

Tip 4: The brutal option: data validation

  1. Create a second sheet, then. In A1 in this new sheet type ‘Companies’ as your column heading for column A then in A2 type ‘Company A’ and in A3 type ‘Company B’. You now have a list of 2 companies.
  2. Now go back to your main sheet, and select all the cells below the heading in column H (‘Company owed’).
  3. Make sure you are in the Data tab in Excel, and click the button marked Data validation.
  4. A window will appear where you can specify what’s allowed in these cells. Select List.
  5. Click into the Source: box at the bottom. Now, while your cursor is still there, move your mouse away from the window and click on the second sheet in Excel, where your list is. Then click and drag to select the cells containing the list of company names you want to allow. The box should start to fill with the location of those cells: `=Sheet2!$A$1:$A$3`
  6. There are other options in the other tabs about the warning that is shown when someone tries to enter a value not in the list, and whether they can override that, but for now… Click OK.

Tip 5: Using Google Forms to enter data

Google Sheets has a few advantages when it comes to data entry projects:

  • The spreadsheet can be accessed from any computer as long as they have an internet connection
  • Google Sheets stores a history of the sheet as it is changed (look under the File menu for ‘Version history’). This means that if mistakes are made you can return to a previous version of the spreadsheet, compare changes, and revert to earlier versions if you need to (removing any changes made after that version)
  • Data can be entered using a form (Google Forms) rather than directly into the spreadsheet itself
  • For notes use ‘Paragraph’ so there’s enough space if they need it.
  • For newsworthiness you can use the ‘Linear scale’ option that makes them choose between 1 and 5 or another range you specify.
  • You can also use the Drop-down option to force them to specify from a range of options (such as countries).
  • For yes/no answers use checkboxes.

Taking it further: structured journalism

Although these tips relate to data entry projects as a whole, if you are tracking the development of an issue over time it is well worth looking at some of the resources on ‘structured journalism’. The webinar below provides more information on this and some further tips on how to approach a structured journalism project.

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