With the huge body of data and information that recent years have spawned, it can be easy to get caught up in the potential for number crunching and visualisations.

Indeed, back in 2010, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt claimed mankind produces as much data every two days as the entire sum of human endeavour up until 2003 – one exabyte, or one quintillion bytes.

But there is a "very important difference between data and knowledge", said Alberto Nardelli, the Guardian's data editor, at the Polis conference on journalism and the elections last week.

"It is true that most data has been produced fairly recently," he said, "but it is not true that most human knowledge has been produced over the past couple of years."

The same idea should be applied to data journalism, he said, and at the Guardian, rather than producing data journalism for data's sake, Nardelli said his team take two approaches in thinking about their field.

Without humanity, data alone is meaninglessAlberto Nardelli, the Guardian
"The first is, when looking at numbers, ask why do these numbers matter?" he said. "What is the insight? What is the impact on people's lives?"

The focus is on understanding the human interest first, he said, and then telling stories in "compelling relevant ways".

The second is to tell data stories in an original way, not just reproducing a spreadsheet but to offer more insight than competitors and to "look at issues and stories from different angles" by using data.

The story may take the form of text, pictures, graphs or interactives but "the key point is don't start with the end product", he said.

"The key thing is to start with the story. What is the story you are trying to say? What is the point or the insight you are trying to communicate? And what is the best and most compelling format to tell that story in?"

He detailed three types of stories the data team regularly work on.

Quick and relevant numbers

The first are shorter pieces, he said, "which are trying to tell one or two little bits of information in very short, compelling ways, relevant to something that is happening on that day".

A recent example looked at how frequently politicians and political parties appear on the BBC's Question Time, in the wake of a minor Twitter storm (Twitter gale? Twitter gust?) over Nigel Farage's perceived media ubiquity.

gdn qt
Screengrab from theGuardian.com

"He's not the politician that's on Question Time the most although he is on quite often," said Nardelli, "definitely a lot more relative to the number of seats and the power his party holds.

"It tells you which politician has been on the most," he continued, "[but also] which party, their gender, and all in a very visual, simple, short way."

Data investigations to support stories

After a litany of headlines in the UK press about "people coming from Romania and Bulgaria in the millions", Nardelli said the data team looked to find out how many UK nationals are claiming unemployment benefit around the European Union.

The data was not publicly available, however, so the team had to reach out to all 27 member states individually.

Responses ranged from spreadsheets to faxes to one request for payment, but despite the effort needed the reward was in the story rather than the data itself.

"It was only 27 numbers and it took a long time to compile," Nardelli said, "but the key to making it interesting is you can be insightful, compelling and interesting when you think about the story and not the numbers."

Making complex issues relevant

Nardelli's final example revolved around the upcoming election and the Guardian's ongoing interactive which projects the election results based on the most up-to-date polls.

"The key thing is, most people in the world aren't as interested as I am in polls," he said, "so our challenge there is how do we make polling interesting for normal people."

What started off as a long list of possible interest areas boiled down to two: "who is going to win and who might form the next government".

gdn poll
Screenshot from theGuardian.com

The interactive looks at what different party combinations may be necessary to form a majority – and therefore a government – because "those combinations mean very, very different things in terms of policies, in terms of beliefs, in terms of priorities", he said.

"So it was about making polling more accessible, that was the starting point: how do we make polling accessible to most people."

The format of these stories and the level of work that goes into the investigation or presentation may vary, but for Nardelli the bottom line is always the same.

"Without humanity, data alone is meaningless," he said. "So one thing to always bear in mind is it is about the stories you are trying to tell."

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).