Data journalism

The three parts required for the whole story (infographic)

datafoiThis morning on Five Live Investigates – arguably one of the most under-rated shows dedicated to investigative journalism around – I had a bit of an epiphany.  The result of that epiphany is the infographic I’ve tried to create above (click on it to see a larger version).

On today’s show, presenter Adrian Goldberg covered the issue of ambulance response times. Now the rules around ambulance response times are common knowledge in newsrooms: You have Category A calls, the most life-threatening, which should see a paramedic with you within 8 minutes (the target is that 75% of such calls should have a response within eight minutes). (more…)

2 stories, 126 years apart: Why data should be at the heart of every newsroom

Last year, the Accrington Observer, a weekly newspaper in the town which has long since tired of hearing the old milk advert references, marked it’s 125th anniversary by republishing it’s very first newspaper:

accyobIt makes for a fascinating read – both in terms of what the founders of the paper thought would interest their readers, as well as what life was like in a mill town during its boom years – but one thing stood out for me more than anything else.

Tucked away on the back page was this:

observer2Taking up a good chunk of the back page was a detailed timetable for train services in and around Accrington. (For anyone who knows how poor the train services around Accrington are now, it’s a timetable to behold). What I don’t know is whether they published this data every week. I suppose the train timetable in 1890-something was to local folk what the chemist rotas were in the 1990s – information which was useful, but generally not available in too many other places.

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Proof that understanding how to bring a story to life is essential for data journalism

The Journal, Newcastle

I’m sure we’ve all seen stories about the rising number of children living in poverty. One of the challenges for regional newspapers is to make a story like this compelling – after all, it’s an issue which many might sympathise with, but may not want to read about. That’s why I think this front page from the Journal in Newcastle is so great … it makes a hard-hitting issue a compelling purchase because it cuts past the numbers to what it really means for those involved.

For data journalists, or journalists who use data to underpin stories, it’s a great example of how data is the start of the story…

 

 

 

 

Top 10 most read journalism posts of 2011 on this blog

When I first started this blog, I was determined that it wouldn’t just be my opinion on stuff, or rants about stuff, either. I’m not sure how well I’ve done in achieving that aim – but going through the most read posts of 2011 (I’ve done a separate list of FOI posts here):

Manchester Evening News front page1. Is this the most jaw-dropping CCTV still ever?

Do you remember the days when a police call which involved a promise of CCTV was pretty much always guaranteed to end up with a long battle with technology or a trip to the cop shop to pick up a grainy image which had more in common with Magic Eye pictures than it did with 20:20 sharp focus?

Friday’s first edition front page of the Manchester Evening News carries what I think is probably the most striking, and shocking CCTV still I’ve ever seen on a newspaper.

2. 10 Social Network search engines for journalists

Google Realtime, the search engine which was intended to integrate social network updates into Google, has been suspended, the company announced at the weekend.

Whether it returns at all remains to be seen – in my opinion, it’s the sort of tool Google can’t afford to be without.

It was a very useful tool for journalists too, especially as the ‘say what you see’ culture on Twitter exploded, providing excellent first-hand accounts and sources for reporters, especially local ones.

But there are plenty of other social network search engines worth checking out. Here are 10 of the best.

3. Council spending data: 10 tips for journalists looking for stories

Today marks the deadline for councils to start publishing details of all spending over £500. Local government minister Eric Pickles says he expects all councils to be as open as possible. Some, such as Liverpool, have admitted they’ll miss that deadline, and final details of exactly how all councils should produce the information has yet to be issued.

So how should journalists deal with the data? Here are ten points which I hope might help…

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Data: What ingredients make for a good Christmas Eve front page?

It’s a tradition few outside a newsroom will have ever heard of: The battle to get the Christmas Eve front page. Unlike any other day when sales can be expected to be lower (lets face it, it’s pretty much a ninth bank holiday now), in every newsroom I’ve worked in, getting the Christmas Eve front page is a badge of honour. Of sorts.

In several newsrooms I’ve worked in, the Christmas Eve front page came with a prize. In others, it was seen as the pinnacle of the Christmas specials – and I know of several reporters who’ve come out of the Christmas slog with press trips to far flung destinations to look forward to in the new year.

So, what makes for a Christmas Eve front page? (Warning: what follows is unscientific).

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Open data? Why the BBC had to use FOI to get data which was once published freely every week

The BBC today led several of its programmes with a news story which will be familiar to many local journalists: The delays ambulances encounter when they get to hospitals.

It’s not a new story. The problem has been identified across the country time and again for years. As far back as 2007, the Manchester Evening News reported on long delays getting people out of ambulances and into A&E.

That in itself doesn’t make today’s story by the BBC out of the ordinary – just because a problem persists doesn’t stop it being news. What struck me as odd, at first, was the fact the BBC said it had used FOI to get figures on ‘turnaround times’ from NHS Trusts around the country.

Why use FOI when the Department of Health publishes a weekly report on the number of ‘transfers’ between ambulance and A&E which took more than 15 minutes?  The Department of Health’s well-hidden but well-worth-finding Information Centre contains a weekly report on ambulance statistics. The very information the BBC wanted was, in theory, there, ready and waiting.

Or rather, it was.

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Data journalism combines with investigative journalism to leave an elusive MP with questions to answer

Sir Stuart Bell front page

Ding Dong ... Sir Stuart Bell has some questions to answer

What’s the best way to rate an MP’s performance on behalf of his or her constituents? The number of times they have voted in parliament is one way, as is the number of times they’ve stood up and spoken in parliament. But most MPs, when faced with such data (if not positive about them) would argue there’s much, much more to being a constituency MP than just talking in the chamber.

And they would be right, to a point. Which is why I wanted to flag up this rather excellent piece of investigative journalism from the Evening Gazette in Middlesbrough, which has been doing some digging into Labour grandee and local MP Sir Stuart Bell’s performance.

Sir Stuart’s performance in the Commons chamber, according to theyworkforyou.com, is below average. But the Gazette has established that Sir Stuart hasn’t held a constituency surgery for 14 years. He is made even harder to contact by the fact he doesn’t have a constituency office.

According to the paper, his response to questions about this has been to point out that he meets with members of the public by appointment instead, and people can reach him by telephone at any time.

So reporter Neil Macfarlane set about trying to find out how easy or otherwise it was to get in contact with the MP. Over several months, the Gazette rang Sir Stuart’s Westminster office and his home number over 100 times. No-one ever answered. That’s despite claiming staffing costs of £82,896 last year. Contrast that with Teesside’s four other MPs, all of who have their phones answered at the first attempt.

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Making use of an act more powerful than FOI – for one month a year only

The Audit Commission Act offers a rare chance to pretty much tell councils what part of their accounts you’d like to inspect, and there’s very little they can do to hold the information back.

The drawback is that the accounts are only available for 20 days a year. Their availability has to be advertised ahead of time, normally via the public notices section of the local newspaper.

I think it’s fair to say councils get a bit of a shock when members of the public actually ask to use it.

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Data: One set of data, two very different stories, and no-one any better off as a result

Politicians have always had a reasonably relaxed relationship with numbers – which is why making data behind decisions freely available is so important.

But if you thought that the publication of raw numbers would bring an end to confusing interpretations of data by politicians seeking to push a political point of view, then think again.

On Sunday, Labour went on the offensive over funding for Primary Care Trusts, claiming that funding was being moved from poorer – and generally unhealthier – areas  to richer – and generally healthier – areas as a result in a change in the way funding is allocated.

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Here in a flash: What to make of speed camera data now it’s here

Say cheese

Last month, I blogged about how the government had given clear instructions to councils and police forces about the speed camera data they should release. They were also told to do it quickly.

This week, Lancashire’s Partnership for Road Safety - a multi-agency partnership no less – became one of the first to release the data. Lancashire County Council one of the partners, had refused Freedom of Information requests in the past asking for this very information, arguing it would impact on the ability of the cameras to cut crime (ie speeding).

So what do we learn from the data? Well, the partnership has released a pdf for each of the three authorities it covers – Blackburn with Darwen, Lancashire and Blackpool – listing the number of speeding offences which resulted in a fine being paid, or a speed awareness course being attended, or led to a summons being issued or which were outstanding or which were cancelled.

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