DATA: Without adding context, a journalist with data can be dangerous

If you believe the predictions, 2011 will be the year when journalists have more access to data than ever before. Of course, much of the data will also be accessible to the public in general but I suspect more people will be exposed to data via journalism than will actively seek it themselves.

And with that comes a responsibility to make sure that journalists present the full picture with a set of data. In other words, add some context. The old phrase about lies, lies and statistics can be true if one set of data is taken in isolation.

Paul Bradshaw touched on this when looking at a story in November which ‘revealed’ that Birmingham had more CCTV cameras than any other council area. Does that mean Birmingham residents are more-watched than people living elsewhere? Paul suggested that if you divide the population of each council area by the number of CCTV cameras, the answer is no.

So the challenge for 2011 isn’t just making use of all the data that’s available, it’s making use of it responsibly, linking data together to come up with a true picture. When the Birmingham Mail ran its Race for a School Place series – which revealed, using data, the competition for places at each school – it provided a table of the number of places and the number of applications – and also a ratio of pupils per place, creating a level playing field for each school.

If journalists don’t do this, then there will be people who do it for them, post publication. Take, for example, the current Northern Ireland Water story. Thousands left without water, and before the crisis is even over the suggestion is that Northern Ireland Water, because it is still a public body, has been deprived of investment compared to areas in England and Wales, where water companies are in the private sector.  Sky News ran the following two graphics in a report yesterday:

Northern Ireland Water has spent £1.1bn on improvements in five years, said Sky News


... Compared to 322.3bn spent in England and Wales

This appeared to confirm the emerging Conservative Party line that the problem with Northern Ireland Water was that it was a public body. Public bodies = starved of funding.

But it’s also like comparing apples and pears. I suggested this on Twitter and suggested that dividing that investment by the geographical areas served by the England and Wales water companies and the Northern Ireland one would be interesting:

Total spend of £22.3bn divided by  (England 130,395sq km + Wales 20,779sq km = 151,174 sq km) =£147,512 spent per sq km in England and Wales

Total spend of £1.1bn divided by 14,160sq km in Northern Ireland = £77,683 per square km in Northern Ireland.

This would suggest that the private sector does put more into its infrastructure work – but is even this figure fair? After all, there will be large parts of England and Wales which have nothing to do with the water companies. What is really needed to make this number fair is a comparison of infrastructure:

This table shows the England and Wales Water Companies and the distance in km of their water mains and sewer works. Northern Irleand is listed at the bottom

This data took 10 minutes to compile. The hardest part was working out how to present a table on WordPress!

So, if we add up the water mains and sewers of Northern Ireland, we have a combined figure of 41,000km. Divide that £1.1bn of spending by 41,000km we have £26,829 spent per km.

If we do the same with the sewers and the mains in England and Wales against the £22.3bn spent in England and Wales we have a figure of £37,305 spent per km.

Is the extra £10,000 spent per km as ‘sexier’ a figure as comparing £22.3bn against £1.1bn? No – but it’s a whole lot more accurate when all things are considered.

And that’s the challenge in 2011 for journalists: The data’s coming, are we ready to use in context and find the stories which still mean something?

9 thoughts on “DATA: Without adding context, a journalist with data can be dangerous

  1. Take the headline “HIV-positive woman charged for spitting at policeman”. How many journalists, go figure readers, would have bothered to discover that this person had been born with the virus, adopted, taken to another country, and then treated roughly when being arrested for a traffic regulations infringement? How many people bothered to look up Julian Assange’s childhood traumas and preferred to believe those who could not put toothpaste back into the tube? This happens all the time; those of us who have a media platform often use it to further our own agendas, rather than the truth…

  2. David, absolutely agreed.

    That is why we have started our free Council Expenses Dashboard ( to help add context to the issue of Council Transparency. We have so far loaded transactional details of more than 120 Councils into our database allowing the users of the data to be able to analyse the data in one place rather than having to perform thousands of individual file downloads themselves.

    Context is then added in the following ways –

    -by allowing comparisons of spend between councils, or over time or by spend category etc. e.g. in your example above of spend per km, one should also take into account spend per km over time to identify sustained periods of under investment etc.

    -by providing as much relevant descriptive information as possible. Councils publishing lists of payments and dates and no qualitative & descriptive information are inviting a deluge of FOI requests.

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