Using data journalism to promote gender equality with Surbhi Bhatia
A spotlight interview with 2021 Data Fellow Surbhi Bhatia (India cohort)
Surbhi Bhatia is a researcher who tells stories with numbers and charts. She discusses the power of data visualization and some of the challenges facing data journalists and gender advocates, as well as some ways to address these challenges. She’s been a data journalist at Mint, the business daily of Hindustan Times, and has worked with the Finance Research Group, Mumbai. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Delhi and a Master’s degree in public policy from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
AP: To start, could you describe your background and past experience?
SB: My training is in economics and public policy. I’ve been a researcher with the Finance Research Group, Mumbai, and a data-journalist with Mint, the business daily of Hindustan Times. Most of my research and writing cuts across the domains of public policy, academia and journalism.
AP: You mentioned you enjoy telling stories with numbers and charts, so could you talk about your key audiences, and why data visualization is a powerful tool?
SB: The key audience for any graph, visualization or news article, I believe, should be a ten-year-old kid. If through my work, I can simplify something as complex as budget allocations, or trade deficits, to that age group, half my work is done. For the other half, the story should speak directly to its stakeholders, like, the government, corporate and financial institutions, civil society, and finally, the citizens.
Data visualisation is powerful as it makes use of our visual memory. When you see - you remember. It organises vast amounts of data on multiple spreadsheets, into one key trend, story or insight, which is beyond what our minds can comprehend from data in its raw form. For information to have the potential to correct biases and influence a person's view, it must stay in the reader's memory. Interactive tools like Tableau and Datawrapper can imprint that information on our minds for a long time.
AP: So with that, what are the biggest challenges you face as a data journalist and gender advocate?
SB: The world of data and information has exploded in the last decade. We have access to a lot more data today. However, granular and disaggregated data still remains a rare sight. This deficiency is a blind-spot for policy action. For instance (and I quote this example often), knowing that x% of children are out-of-school may elicit a different policy response than knowing that y% of girls and z% of boys are out-of-school. If you don’t measure something, you can’t manage it, and translate it to a policy action. Another challenge is that datasets are often unstructured, outdated and unreliable. I feel that tech and collaborative projects may be able to resolve these issues. Another constant challenge being a data-journalist, is to keep reminding oneself that the data-points on our graphs are real individuals, not mere trends.
AP: How do you think these data challenges can be addressed?
SB: I believe that digitisation and tech-based solutions can solve the problem of making structured data accessible to everyone. Access to clean and organised data removes barriers, ensuring anyone can perform an analysis. To get there, we’ll have to build an ecosystem that supports data-collection and dissemination with tools that minimise human error. It needs infrastructure, skills, training and sensitivity, to maintain and communicate granular data, responsibly.