Tag Archives: review

A review of Help Me Investigate in 2013 – and learning from it in 2014

Help Me Investigate logo

Over on the Help Me Investigate Blog there’s a review of the project’s activities over the past year across its four sites: Health, Olympics, Education and Welfare.

Four site editors landed jobs in the media during the year, which was particularly nice to see, but also meant we lost a certain amount of continuity. Learning from that, this year I’ll be focusing the project’s efforts particularly on welfare issues such as child poverty, housing, food poverty, and the one year anniversary of the bedroom tax.

If you want to get involved, please contact carol@helpmeinvestigate.com or tweet us for a follow on Twitter @carolmiers and @paulbradshaw.

Web security for journalists – takeaway tips and review

Web security for journalists - book cover

Early in Alan Pearce‘s book on web security, Deep Web for Journalists, a series of statistics appears that tell a striking story about the spread of surveillance in just one country.

199 is the first: the number of data mining programs in the US in 2004 when 16 Federal agencies were “on the look-out for suspicious activity”.

Just six years later there were 1,200 government agencies working on domestic intelligence programs, and 1,900 private companies working on domestic intelligence programs in the same year.

As a result of this spread there are, notes Pearce, 4.8m people with security clearance “that allows them to access all kinds of personal information”. 1.4m have Top Secret clearance.

But the most sobering figure comes at the end: 1,600 – the number of names added to the FBI’s terrorism watchlist each day.

Predictive policing

This is the world of predictive policing that a modern journalist must operate in: where browsing protesters’ websites, making particular searches, or mentioning certain keywords in your emails or tweets can put you on a watchlist, or even a no-fly list. An environment where it is increasingly difficult to protect your sources – or indeed for sources to trust you.

Alan Pearce’s book attempts to map this world – and outline the myriad techniques to avoid compromising your sources. Continue reading

Three book reviews: leaks, FOI, and surveillance

Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark book cover
This Machine Kills Secrets book cover

If you’re interested in leaks, surveillance or FOI, three book reviews I wrote over the last two months on the Help Me Investigate blog recently might interest you:

Livesheets creator wants to “make all kids into rocket scientists”

Abacus image by Anssi Koskinen

Abacus image by Anssi Koskinen on Flickr

“Imagine if you could search for any calculations and then just use them directly without ever having to work it out yourself from scratch.”

This is the vision of developer Daniel Maxwell, the creator of livesheets.com, whose dream it is for no one in the world to perform the same calculation twice again. Continue reading

7 books that journalists working online should read?

Image by B_Zedan

While it’s one thing to understand interactive storytelling, community management, or the history of online journalism, the changes that are affecting journalism are wider than the industry itself. So although I’ve written previously on essential books about online journalism, I wanted to also compile a list of books which I think are essential for those wanting to gain an understanding of wider dynamics affecting the media industries and, by extension, journalism.

These are books that provide historical context to the hysteria surrounding technologies; that give an insight into the cultural movements changing society; that explore key philosophical issues such as privacy; or that explore the commercial dynamics driving change.

But they’re just my choices – please add your own.

Continue reading

Kit Review: Gymbl Pro iPhone Mount

The Gymbl – makes your iPhone not quite a good phone or a good camera

Jon Hickman reviews iPhone tripod Gymbl Pro.

Jonathan Ive didn’t design my iPhone with a pistol grip. Instead of a hard, brittle feeling, bumpy, plastic case, Jonathan Ive fashioned a fetish object wrapped in perfectly smooth flat glass. Jonathan Ive did not design the Gymbl Pro, by Youbiq.

Would Jonathan Ive use a Gymbl Pro in pistol grip mode to shoot a video?

No, he wouldn’t. Jonathan Ive would use an iPhone 4 to grab short informal videos. If he was in the field and had a chance to grab an important interview with somebody, he’d not hesitate to use his iPhone 4 in the hand. Jony would know that informal handheld shooting would add a sense of urgency or intimicay to his media file – he’d say: “There’s no need for handheld slickness, we’re over that now”. Continue reading

Review: Yahoo! Pipes tutorial ebook

Pipes Tutorial ebook

I’ve been writing about Yahoo! Pipes for some time, and am consistently surprised that there aren’t more books on the tool. Pipes Tutorial – an ebook currently priced at $14.95 – is clearly aiming to address that gap.

The book has a simple structure: it is, in a nutshell, a tour around the various ‘modules’ that you combine to make a pipe.

Some of these will pull information from elsewhere – RSS feeds, CSV spreadsheets, Flickr, Google Base, Yahoo! Local and Yahoo! Search, or entire webpages.

Some allow the user to input something themselves – for example, a search phrase, or a number to limit the type of results given.

And others do things with all the above – combining them, splitting them, filtering, converting, translating, counting, truncating, and so on.

When combined, this makes for some powerful possibilities – unfortunately, its one-dimensional structure means that this book doesn’t show enough of them.

Modules in isolation

While the book offers a good introduction into the functionality of the various parts of Yahoo! Pipes, it rarely demonstrates how those can be combined. Typically, tutorial books will take you through a project that utilises the power of the tools covered, but Pipes Tutorial lacks this vital element. Sometimes modules will be combined in the book but this is mainly done because that is the only way to show how a single module works, rather than for any broader pedagogical objective.

At other times a module is explained in isolation and it is not explained how the results might actually be used. The Fetch Page module, for example – which is extremely useful for scraping content from a webpage – is explained without reference to how to publish the results, only a passing mention that the reader will have to use ‘other modules’ to assign data to types, and that Regex will be needed to clean it up.

Continue reading

Review: Heather Brooke – The Silent State

The Silent State

In the week that a general election is called, Heather Brooke’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed. The Silent State is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work that pierces through the fog of the UK’s bureaucracies of power to show how they work, what is being hidden, and the inconsistencies underlying the way public money is spent.

Like her previous book, Your Right To Know, Brooke structures the book into chapters looking at different parts of the power system in the UK – making it a particularly usable reference work when you want to get your head around a particular aspect of our political systems.

Chapter by chapter

Chapter 1 lists the various databases that have been created to maintain information on citizens - paying particular focus to the little-publicised rack of databases holding subjective data on children. The story of how an old unpopular policy was rebranded to ride into existence on the back of the Victoria Climbie bandwagon is particularly illustrative of government’s hunger for data for data’s sake.

Picking up that thread further, Chapter 2 explores how much public money is spent on PR and how public servants are increasingly prevented from speaking directly to the media. It’s this trend which made The Times’ outing of police blogger Nightjack particularly loathsome and why we need to ensure we fight hard to protect those who provide an insight into their work on the ground.

Chapter 3 looks at how the misuse of statistics led to the independence of the head of the Office of National Statistics – but not the staff that he manages – and how the statistics given to the media can differ quite significantly to those provided when requested by a Select Committee (the lesson being that these can be useful sources to check). It’s a key chapter for anyone interested in the future of public data and data journalism.

Bureaucracy itself is the subject of the fourth chapter. Most of this is a plea for good bureaucracy and the end of unnamed sources, but there is still space for illustrative and useful anecdotes about acquiring information from the Ministry of Defence.

And in Chapter 5 we get a potted history of MySociety’s struggle to make politicians accountable for their votes, and an overview of how data gathered with public money – from The Royal Mail’s postcodes to Ordnance Survey – is sold back to the public at a monopolistic premium.

The justice system and the police are scrutinised in the 6th and 7th chapters – from the twisted logic that decreed audio recordings are more unreliable than written records to the criminalisation of complaint.

Then finally we end with a personal story in Chapter 8: a reflection on the MPs’ expenses saga that Brooke is best known for. You can understand the publishers – and indeed, many readers – wanting to read the story first-hand, but it’s also the least informative of all the chapters for journalists (which is a credit to all that Brooke has achieved on that front in wider society).

With a final ‘manifesto’ section Brooke summarises the main demands running across the book and leaves you ready to storm every institution in this country demanding change. It’s an experience reminiscent of finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial – we have just been taken on a tour through the faceless, logic-deprived halls of power. And it’s a disconcerting, disorientating feeling.

Journalism 2.0

But this is not fiction. It is great journalism. And the victims caught in expensive paper trails and logical dead ends are real people.

Because although the book is designed to be dipped in as a reference work, it is also written as an eminently readable page-turner – indeed, the page-turning gets faster as the reader gets angrier. Throughout, Brooke illustrates her findings with anecdotes that not only put a human face on the victims of bureaucracy, but also pass on the valuable experience of those who have managed to get results.

For that reason, the book is not a pessimistic or sensationalist piece of writing. There is hope – and the likes of Brooke, and MySociety, and others in this book are testament to the fact that this can be changed.

The Silent State is journalism 2.0 at its best – not just exposing injustice and waste, but providing a platform for others to hold power to account. It’s not content for content’s sake, but a tool. I strongly recommend not just buying it – but using it. Because there’s some serious work to be done.

2 great books on online communities

I’ve been meaning to blog for a while now about 2 excellent books I’ve read this year about communities online, both of which are pretty much essential reading for anyone involved in community management.

the wikipedia revolution

The first is Andrew Lih’s book The Wikipedia Revolution. Lih is for me the world’s leading academic on Wikipedia, not least because he’s been a participant in Wikipedia himself and has a great understanding of how the community works from the inside.

The book charts how the community has evolved from one that was maintained by personal connections to a whole stratified society of rules, roles, technologies and norms.

Particularly key are the sections on the development of the ‘Spanish Fork‘ (the mere mention of a commercial version of Wikipedia led to members of their Spanish site effectively leaving in protest and setting up their own encyclopedia) and Chapter 5: The Piranha Effect, which I gave to my MA Online Journalism students as one of their first readings.

The book also deals with trolls, vandalism (the Siegenthaler incident) and censorship.

18 Rules of Community Engagement

The second great book is from experienced community manager Angela Connor: 18 Rules of Community Engagement (also available as an e-book). This is a great complement to Lih’s as this comes from a very different, practical, angle drawing not just on her own knowledge but those of readers of her blog. In fact, it’s a very bloggy book generally.

Connor emphasises the need to invest lots of time in any community developing relationships, making connections and fostering relationships. She looks at the importance of content (of the right type) and questions, of rules and culture, egos and compliments, influence and complaints.

It’s a breezy book that doesn’t impose one solution on every problem but frequently returns to the fact that every community is different, and so even common problems like trolls and spamming will have different solutions. That said, there are plenty of experiences offered.

These are probably the best 2 books I’ve read on online communities – but if you’ve read something good in the area, please let me know.