Data comes in many shapes and forms. Hopefully, a lot of it will soon become a lot easier to access thanks to the government’s open data intiative.
But the sudden (hopeful) arrival of a lot of easy-to-access data won’t remove the need, regularly, for journalistic intervention in the hunt for stories based on numbers – as this week has proved.
Two scenarios, both heading towards the same outcome have appeared this weekend around election expenses. An often forgotten part of the election process (normally because everyone is so knackered after an election), they’ve generated a lot of interest this time out. I’ll leave the Jon Snow/Zac Goldsmith debate to one side for now, and look instead at two other examples.
First up, the Manchester Evening News reported today on the amounts candidates spent across Greater Manchester, and what it was spent on. Of course, it’s not public money, but the figures are interesting none-the-less. Chief reporter David Ottewell makes the conclusion that money can’t buy you success.
It turns out the Lib Dem incumbent MP in Rochdale spent twice as much as his Labour rival – and Labour won. The Tories spent £15k more than Labour in another Labour marginal, but still lost.
Other data to emerge includes private donations, how much of their own money candidates spent and what the money was spent on. One failed Labour candidate spent £100 on red roses, Hazel Blears spent £79 on helium while another spent £133 on used coffee, tea, milk, crisps, biscuits and cake from supermarkets and platters of food from Costco for party workers who had been canvassing for him.
In short, it’s the sort of stuff which is interesting to readers but which, unchecked, would be locked away in a dusty town hall cupboard somewhere.
In Birmingham, Paul Bradshaw is taking a different approach – crowdsourcing the exercise. Paul is using Posterousto post copies of the receipts all candidates must produce so anyone can examine them. He’d like to see this repeated everywhere. Like the MEN approach, it ensures the information stays in the public domain for good, and is easy to access.
Part of Bradshaw’s motivation here is that Goldsmith’s defence over allegations about his election expenses is that lots of other candidates will have done the same. Bradshaw wants to challenge that.
As he says on his post:
Remember, finding nothing is still a finding, as it challenges Goldsmith’s story.
It’s data, not quite at our fingertips, with facts which should be reported.