The world around us is complex and nuanced and humans have finite time and capacity.
Online, this problem is aggravated due to:
Persuasion. When you use reason, data, scholarly literature, and historical context, it helps build the case. Facts establish credibility because they can be independently verified. Hence, there is an opportunity to dialogue with others with evidence rooted in reality instead of ideological positions. The subsequent dialogue helps bring down polarization. After everyone has evaluated (and accepted or rejected) your evidence, stakeholders on the other side of the aisle recognize and understand the cause you are advocating for.
Longitudinal view. When you strategically look at an issue — in arcs of 3-5 years — collecting evidence (in Google Sheets?) help you discover temporal and geographical patterns. With time, it deepens and contextualizes your knowledge.
More than a decade ago, I, Ritvvij Parrikh, was working as a consultant/sales at Amdocs US for AT&T. Every day I would spend 6-8 hours on the phone with business experts from AT&T. My job was to understand AT&T’s business plans and propose technical or design solutions that would result in a software change request for Amdocs. I used to journal meticulously in an excel sheet all the people I encountered and the progression of each idea’s discussions.
Later, at Pykih, I started keeping most of these same details in a CRM as contacts, deals, and customer requests.
But it wasn’t until I joined my fellowship with the International Center for Journalists that I encountered a formal, domain-specific name for this.Marketing calls it swipe files. Design calls it mood boards.
Duke Reporter’s Lab defines structured journalism as publishing news, research, or reportage as entries in a database, enabling the audience to explore the content in ways that reveal trends and patterns. In his blog (Re)Structuring Journalism, Reg Chua of Reuters says that structured journalism is part database-driven journalism, part wiki-driven journalism, and part template-driven journalism.
Short answer –
Evidence isn’t something that one can creatively cook up. It takes significant time, effort, and investment to collect data in a structured fashion that can be verified. This includes businesses that focus on a niche, reporters who cover a beat, researchers, and Ph.D. students, activists who deeply care for a community, think tanks that work on a topic, and so on.
Spreadsheet journaling does not replace traditional work but goes one step forward. Every time you do something or encounter a new piece of information, you annotate it and log it in a continually updated spreadsheet.
In spreadsheet journaling, you create data from everyday events (stories, if you are a journalist). The data then gives you insights (or stories). In fact, Duke Reporter’s Lab adds that the database IS the story in structured journalism (spreadsheet journaling).
In contrast, with data analysis or data journalism, you find insights from already existing data.
If yes, here is how you build a case. Any ROI can be articulated with two variables:
This gives us four business cases:
Sometimes the data or information already exists, but it is barely usable because it is not organized, has poor hygiene or readability, and presentation. A significant event has or will happen. You can reuse this existing data or information to achieve a business objective.
In news and journalism, the event can be a national election, a terrorist attack, or a war. You want to do a unique project that attracts and engages the audience. As an advertisement agency, you are about to pitch to a major client and build up a swipe file for inspiration.
These projects have a well-defined start and end. Once implemented, these projects do not need to be maintained. After the event, such evergreen research has evergreen utility and can pull in long-tail traffic.
Low effort for a finite amount of time is the best way for your organization to start experimenting with spreadsheet journaling.
Daily there’s a lot of hustle-bustle and activity at work — we prospect, meet people, research, read, build.
For some of us, like salespeople or daily-beat reporters, our role is to produce regular, consistent output. However, that output has a shelf-life of only a few days. Think of it like notifications in your Facebook account — useful now, not so much later. Additionally, many such daily grunt-work often never reach a logical conclusion — leads drop off, stories are not filed, etc.
Using spreadsheet journaling, you can convert daily activity into a strategic asset, where a bigger and better picture shapes up. Over time, this asset gives insights in the form of patterns, outliers, etc. This way, you start productizing your byproducts.
“What is measured is what’s managed,” or so goes the saying.
Some issues happen sporadically — geographically or temporally. Hence, there is no clear evidence of their occurrence. Additionally, no formal agency (or government or company) is tracking this issue formally. Without evidence, there is no credible way to understand the magnitude of the issue or act upon it in such situations. In such situations, use spreadsheet journaling to build evidence.
There are two ways to build evidence. Either you do secondary research and collate data from secondary sources. Alternatively, you connect with people and report from the ground to collect evidence.
Such projects are too costly to execute, yet many niche organizations do it since they are well-connected within a community or deeply connected with the mission. Some projects in the below swipe file that falls under this category are Yemen Data Project, EBWiki, Homicide Watch.