Last year, the data agency LocalFocus became part of the ANP. Now, six months after the takeover, co-founder of LocalFocus Jelle Kamsma is carefully going abroad. "We have never been very proactive in promoting our product outside of the Netherlands. We're not called LocalFocus for nothing." And yet that may soon change.
Jelle has just returned from Canada, where he spent a week at the editorial department of The Canadian Press to ensure the implementation of the LocalFocus election tool went smoothly. He tells about all the developments round the international ambitions.
Can we soon start calling your division "GlobalFocus"?
"That is indeed a working title that we are now using among ourselves somewhat jokingly,"says Jelle, laughing. "But don't pin me down to it’! It may not have been a current item on the agenda to go abroad with LocalFocus, but it has not been the first time that the local data agency 'exchanged' the Netherlands. LocalFocus already joined forces with Belgian media on several occasions. The LocalFocus election tool was used for the elections of our southern neighbours. "But that felt a bit like a home game because we speak the same language", adds Jelle.
"Our network has expanded enormously at one go. The step to take LocalFocus abroad this way came sooner than we expected"
"Our network has expanded enormously at one go. The step to take LocalFocus abroad this way came sooner than we expected"— Jelle Kamsma
Our network has expanded enormously at one go. The step to take LocalFocus abroad this way came sooner than we expected. Under the wings of the ANP, international media suddenly came within reach and the discussion of taking LocalFocus abroad followed automatically. "Before we were taken over, we did have discussions with foreign media, but that never really made anything concrete. Now that I look back on it, internationalization is really something I don't think we could have done on our own. The great thing about working together with ANP is that our network has expanded enormously in one fell swoop, resulting in valuable connections. This joint venture also took effect abroad. We were unexpectedly negotiating with the people who make the decisions at other news agencies. The decision to take LocalFocus abroad came sooner than expected", says Jelle.
Collaboration with The Canadian Press
Even before the ANP took over the company, Martijn Bennis (CEO of the ANP) invited the managers of LocalFocus for an interview with The Canadian Press. Just to get acquainted and to show them what we do. The line of reasoning was: could LocalFocus also work in Canada?
Eventually we were asked if we could offer some support during the local elections in Ontario. Quite a challenge, but we thought: if it works in Belgium, a country with a complex political system, then it may work in the rest of the world as well. So Jelle left for one week to Canada, with a tailor-made plan for The Canadian Press, supporting the editors in visualizing the election results.
The service that made LocalFocus great is collecting and translating newsworthy data into a visually appealing graph or map. The election tool is a separate service, optimized to present election results as quickly and clearly as possible to huge numbers of visitors at once.
"This requires a different way of working, one of extreme precision. Everything must work correctly and no bugs in the system are allowed. Each Canadian looks at the results on various websites within fifteen minutes after the polls close. You want to be able to act quickly and properly, which is why we thought it was important that one of us would be present at the editorial office of The Canadian Press", says Kamsma. LocalFocus colleague Erik (IT boss at ANP/LocalFocus) stayed in the Netherlands to ensure that all technology worked properly. Because of the time difference, he was ready at 3 a.m. GMT to provide remote support to the editors in Canada.
"We have managed to make data journalism scalable according to the 'one-to-many principle'"
"We have managed to make data journalism scalable according to the 'one-to-many principle'"— Jelle Kamsma
Scalable data journalism
The days Jelle spent in Canada were also used for looking ahead. What does such a data journalism service imply abroad? "The misconception about data journalism is that it is always complicated and time-consuming. In many places around the world, they still produce graphs the same way they did twenty years ago.
It is often the static graphics, which are very labour-intensive and the use of it by other media is often disappointing, but that could be otherwise; we have already debunked that myth in the Netherlands by using the speed and ease of LocalFocus with which data can be visualized. We have managed to make data journalism scalable according to the 'one-to-many principle': one visual that can be published effortlessly in different designs for different titles", says Jelle.
Yet there are still challenges when it comes to taking LocalFocus abroad. The software has already been developed but will need to be regionalized in several areas, such as new maps. An inventory also needs to be made of which newsworthy data sources are present in the respective countries. Based on the discussions in Canada, a step-by-step plan has been developed for setting up a data journalism news service according to the LocalFocus model. One of the most important first steps according to Jelle is, finding a expert data journalist.
What are the next steps?
The experiment in Canada went well, but Jelle remains modest when it comes to looking into the future. "The pilots have yet to start. They will show whether it is as easy to convert for international use as we think. We will undoubtedly run into things we can't foresee now because the context is different, and all news agencies are organized slightly differently.
The advantage of working with our software internationally is that this should lead to greater capacity to further develop the software. We work in a small team and there are currently two colleagues who actively develop LocalFocus. Compared to competitors, that is only a fraction of the teams they work with. If we were actively used abroad, that would mean a huge growth in opportunities for us."