Monthly Archives: June 2009

Crowdsourcing MPs’ expenses – live!

If you go to one webpage today, go to The Guardian’s liveblog of the results of people rummaging through the MPs expenses released today. It’s crowdsourcing in action.

I’ll write about this in more depth when I have a chance…

More support for my ‘Fantasy Football as future of news’ hypothesis

Last September in ‘Why fantasy football may hold the key to the future of news‘ I wrote that data was one of the few advantages that news organisations have, and they should be doing more with it. A piece in today’s ReadWriteWeb adds a little commercial stardust to that hypothesis:

MLB.com’s already wildly successful iPhone app [has] a $10 price tag that sports fans are apparently happy to pay, this could provide a great model for other struggling media to find an important new revenue stream – and not just because it charges for content. “… Any media outlet that can leverage statistics and data visualization as a central part of its coverage would be well served to put those visualizations in an iPhone app and sell it. The iPhone and Android platforms are brilliant for scrolling and zooming through layers of data in ways that print, TV and radio could only dream of. Mobile, touchscreen and hand-held beats a web page on the desktop computer too for data visualization.”

Amen to that.

Whenever I do sessions with people in the industry about online business models I show them The Guardian’s Chalkboard. That for me is a prime candidate for a premium mobile app (assuming there are no licensing issues) – not just because of the data, but because it is social. News orgs take note.

7 ways to blog anonymously {updated}

Following today’s landmark judgement on one blogger’s right (or not) to anonymity, I thought it might be useful to post the following tips on maintaining anonymity online.

1. Use an anonymous email account to register your blog. Hushmail is one free service that provides encrypted accounts; RiseUp is aimed at activists; MintEmail gives you a 3 hour temporary email address and FilzMail gives you one that expires after 24 hours. You could also use these to post to your blog via email. Posterous is a great blogging service that allows you to do this.

2. Make sure your IP address isn’t logged when you register or post to the blog. You could use something like Anonymizer or Tor or Psiphon. Other services that mask your IP are listed on this forum.

3. Or you could use an anonymous blogging platform. Invisiblog was one but no longer exists. BlogACause claims to be “anonymous” but I’m trying to find out exactly how UPDATE: here’s how, apparently. In the meantime, this post recommends WordPress and something like Tor.

4. Use a pseudonym that you don’t use anywhere else. If you use a pseudonym, don’t use it on other services as well, as this will make it easier to trace you. If you’re struggling, this Random Name Generator will create one for you.

5. If you’re going to register a domain name do so anonymously with a service like The Online Policy Group.

6. Be careful what information you include. Although police blogger NightJack changed or did not include names in cases he was involved in, the details were specific enough for a journalist to track him down.

7. Don’t win awards. Or book deals. It’s safe to say that a major newspaper would not have been interested in the identities of NightJack or Girl With A One Track Mind if both had remained cult underground heroes. So just pretend you’re sub-literate, OK?

For more information, the following guides go into much more detail:

More links and tips welcome. My Delicious bookmarks on anonymity are at http://delicious.com/paulb/anonymity

The complicated case of the (now not) anonymous police blogger, The Times, and ‘public interest’

Widely lauded anonymous police blogger NightJack has had his identity revealed after The Times took the affair to court.

It’s a cloudy affair. The Times’ angle is that media correspondent Patrick Foster wanted to ‘out’ someone he felt “was revealing confidential details about cases, some involving sex offences against children, that could be traced back to genuine prosecutions” as well as offering “advice to people who found themselves the subject of a police investigation.”

NightJack’s case for preventing the publication of his name was that he would be (and indeed has already been) punished by his superiors.

Mr Justice Eady didn’t buy that, saying: “I do not accept that it is part of the court’s function to protect police officers who are, or think they may be, acting in breach of police discipline regulations from coming to the attention of their superiors.”

The Times also reports him as saying “that even if the blogger could have claimed he had a right to anonymity, the judge would have ruled against him on public interest grounds.”

Hugh Tomlinson, QC, for the blogger, had argued that “thousands of regular bloggers who communicate nowadays via the internet under a cloak of anonymity would be horrified to think that the law would do nothing to protect their anonymity of someone carried out the necessary detective work and sought to unmask them”.

The judge said … the blogger needed to show that he had a legally enforceable right to maintain anonymity in the absence of a genuine breach of confidence, by suppressing the fruits of detective work such as that carried out by Mr Foster.

But Mr Justice Eady said that the mere fact that the blogger wanted to remain anonymous did not mean that he had a “reasonable expectation” of doing so; or that The Times was under an enforceable obligation to him to maintain that anonymity.

There are so many elements to this case it’s difficult to pick them apart.

  • On the one hand we have a blog which is potentially, in some circumstances, in contempt of court, written by a policeman who is, strictly speaking, breaking his obligations under the “statutory code governing police behaviour and general public law duty”. That’s The Times’ ‘public interest’, or at least the case that they made (The Times have history here – it would have been interesting to have seen the public interest argument for publishing the name of Girl With A One Track Mind).
  • On the other we have someone’s privacy.
  • But the 3rd point – and it’s interesting that this doesn’t seem to have been used as a defence – is that this is a ruling that has enormous implications for whistleblowers and people blogging ‘on the ground’. That’s someone else’s ‘public interest’.

And that last element is the saddest for me.

With the disappearance of NightJack (his blog has already been deleted*), we lose one more ‘voice on the ground’. While The Times focused on the letter of the law that was being broken, the broader public interest of letting public servants voice their…

frustrations with … attempts at the reform of policing which, he says, has turned officers from “approachable neighbourhood figures into neon-clad stormtroopers.””

…has been ignored.

It is difficult enough to get soldiers to blog, for people to get a genuine feel for the experiences of NHS workers, civil servants and teachers.

And it just got harder.

UPDATE: Curiously, The Times appear to have prevented their reporter from speaking about the issue on Radio 5.

UPDATE 2: A couple of Times journalists have gone on the record with their feelings about the affair.

UPDATE 3: NightJack himself has written a piece in The Times on the story behind the case. Anonymong describes it as “reminiscent of a communist show trial where the accused is allowed to publicly confess their sins and misdemeanors.” But the comments tell a very different story of support.

UPDATE 4: I’ve written a guide to anonymity for bloggers.

UPDATE 5: Via Anonymong:  “as noted by Anna Raccoon there is now some precedent for investigating and publishing identifying material relating to a serving police office as prohibited by the counter terrorism act 2008.”

UPDATE 6: As you’d expect, someone has dug into Patrick Foster’s past and come up with some dirt of their own.

UPDATE 7: Fellow public service blogger and ambulance driver Tom Reynolds gives his views on the case. Chicken Yoghurt gives his on the media’s use of anonymous sources. David MacLean responds: “Of course journalists rely on anonymous sources, but if a rival national newspaper found out who was tipping off a competitor, they’d more than likely expose them if the resulting story would be of interest to the public.”. Emily Bell highlights the raft of furious comments on The Times’ Crime Central blog. Gary Andrews gives his take. And Journalism.co.uk round up some more besides.

UPDATE 8 [Jan 24 2012] It seems that Nightjack’s email was hacked in order to get that story.

(h/t Girlonetrack) *Thanks to Martin in the comments: if you type “site:nightjack.wordpress.com” into Google, the pages appear to be cached. Don’t know how long that will last though.

An open letter to Tim Berners-Lee about open government

Following the tone set so succinctly by Glyn Moody, I thought I would add my own thoughts on what Sir Tim should say to the government when he bends their ear on transparency.

Firstly, I would second everything that Glyn says.

But I’m going to be cynical and strategic, and urge Sir Tim to emphasise the importance of open data on a couple of areas that are close to the government’s hearts.

1. Stimulating growth in the economy.

You could compare a genuinely significant release of public data to an economic stimulus.

Like cutting VAT, only cheaper.

At minimal cost you could have a new raw material that startups and established media organisations alike could create new value out of. Some of those would create commercial implications far exceeding any revenue generated within government (as research recently suggested in relation to the comparably valuable Ordnance Survey data).

Repeat after me: jobs and money, jobs and money.

2. Efficiencies and passing on costs in the public sector

Samuel Butler’s Erewhon puts it particularly well:

You will sooner gain your end by “appealing to men’s pockets, in which they have generally something of their own, than to their heads, which contain for the most part little but borrowed or stolen property”

Public sector spending is going to drop whichever party is in power. Let’s play to that.

By opening up public data the government will effectively be able to pass on some development costs to willing volunteers who mash up the data in their own ways. The difference is that people will do this to their own agendas and for their own benefit.

But more importantly, the results of this experimentation – if supported and encouraged – should produce work that makes it more efficient to interact with public data and therefore public bodies. If I can use a slider to find out which schools are within 3 miles, that saves 20 minutes of someone answering a phonecall in the local education department. If I can have a Facebook app which tells other users how much money alcohol abuse is costing my local hospital, it might save the NHS a bob or two. You get the picture. 

Oh yes, and it’s important for democracy, civic engagement and digital literacy

The limited data that’s available in the UK is an embarrassment. Imagine what MySociety could do with what’s available in the US.

Likewise, for all the talk of transparency, the recent announcement that Cabinet Papers and information relating to the Royal Family would be exempt from the Freedom of Information act is a backward step. Heather Brooke’s concerns proved right.

The cynic in me sees the appointment of Berners-Lee as an action intended to generate the illusion of movement – “We’re working on it”. But the Freedom of Information act is possibly the most positive contribution the Labour government has made to this country’s political health since it came to power, and not to follow through on promises made would be an enormous political mistake.

So I will add one request to my advice above: I would stress that any discussion of transparency acknowledges the importance of requiring any organisation using public funds to make their data public too. So much public work is outsourced to the private sector that it is particularly difficult to see whether public money is spent responsibly.

More at Podnosh, BBC, Emma Mulqueeny, Simon Dickson and Amused Cynicism.

Every news organisation should have a Datastore

You may know about The Guardian’s Datastore: a compilation of “publicly-available data for you to use free” that’s been around for a few months now. You know the sort of thing: university tables; MPs’ expensestax paid by the FTSE 100.

It has already produced some great work from what I once described as the “Technician” variant of distributed journalism

But a column by Charles Arthur recently was the first example I’ve seen of Datastore being used for, well, more ordinary data – the sort of information journalists deal with every week. Here’s how it appeared in print:

“I dug up the figures from the UK music industry: the British record industry’s trade association (the BPI), and the UK games industry (via its trade body, Elspa) as well as the DVD industry (through the UK Film Council and the British Video Association). The results are over on the Guardian Data Store (http://bit.ly/data01), because they are the sort of numbers that should be available to everyone to chew over.

“What did I find? Total spending has grown – but music spending is being squeezed. The games industry – hardware and software – has grown from £1.4bn in 1999 (the year Napster started, and the music business stood rabbit-transfixed) to £4.04bn in 2008. That’s 12% annual compound growth. You’d kill for an endowment like that. Even DVD sales and rental take a £2.5bn bite out of consumers’ available funds, double that of 1999.

“So the music industry’s deadliest enemy isn’t filesharing – it’s the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, and a zillion games publishers.”

That link (which frustratingly isn’t active in the online article) takes you to a Datablog post by Arthur which in turn links to a rather simple spreadsheet. 

And it’s the simplicity that I think is important.

It’s one thing to link to huge datasets that benefit from lots of eyeballs looking for stories, or perming the data in different ways.

But it’s something else to link to the more everyday figures journalists deal with; to show your sums, in short.

Is this a natural extension of the blogging culture of linking to your sources? I think it is. And the more journalists get used to publishing their work on the likes of Google Spreadsheets, the better journalism we will get.

So why aren’t more journalists doing it? And why aren’t more news organisations providing a place for them to do it? Or are they? I’d love to know of any other individual or organisational examples.

I smell a government rat in my news

As traditional media outlets close down, the relative importance of non-market players becomes more important.

Governments around the world were quick to see the opportunities for their news agencies. From Xinhua (China) to ITAR-TASS (Russia), from AFP (half of its budget comes from state subscriptions) to Voice of America, governments are trying to shape the world’s public opinion.

The coverage of Gaza by Al Jazeera is a case in point. They produced quality journalism no other outlet could dream of. Now, viewers should keep in mind that money for such newsgathering comes straight from the pocket of the Emir of Qatar. Believe me, I’m sure Al Jazeera’s journalists keep that in mind too.

To help you measure the amount of government-funded journalism, I built this little app, I smell a government rat in my news. Just type in any query and you’ll see the share of articles produced with state funds. Continue reading

Interactive presentation tool Flowgram to close (some suggested alternatives)

It seems the recession has bitten Flowgram before it even got into its stride. The service, which allowed you to record notes and audio narration on top of webpages and other material, had obvious applications for journalism (slideshows, tutorials, blogging, training etc.), but it seems we’ll have to look elsewhere.

An email from the service says:

“Today is a sad day for us. We have decided to terminate the Flowgram service as of the end of the month (June 30th, 2009).  The service received excellent reviews and had an enthusiastic core user base. However, we were not able to demonstrate (especially in these economic times) that Flowgrams would ever be prevalent enough for us to adequately monetize the business, either though ads or subscriptions. This is obviously very disappointing, but building the Flowgram platform was a lot of fun, and it was wonderful to see how many of you used our tool to express yourselves in a deep and meaningful way.

“Although you won’t be able to play your Flowgrams after the end of the month,  you can export them to video by clicking “share” from the website or “more sharing options” from the Flowgram player and scrolling down to the export to video section.  It is very important, if you wish to keep your content, that you export to video and download the video by the end of the month.  Please let us know at support@flowgram.com if you have any difficulties doing this.”

Alternative services

There isn’t any service I can think of that allows you to narrate live webpages in the same way. Diigo does allow you to bookmark and annotate webpages (and export to Delicious), and there are screencasting tools like GoView, Jing and Screentoaster. Then there are webconferencing tools, some of which allow you to record what you’re doing on screen.

But if you can think of any specific tools, or have had good or bad experiences with some (most of the above I haven’t tried), let me know.

Making money from content online – presentation

Here’s a presentation I made yesterday at the Fazeley Digital event. It’s intentionally provocative – and I’m sure you’re intelligent enough to read the real points I’m making here. Anyway, comments welcome.

Foreign reporting in the digital age

There is very little that qualifies as better foreign reporting than a story by a Robert Kaplan or a Dan McDougall. It’s not a 2-minute soundbite from a television camera on broadcast news or a ten-thousandth reiteration of an Associated Press story. It’s hardcore investigative journalism that usually comes after months if not years of living in a region, interacting with its denizens, and observing livelihoods.

Unfortunately, in a flailing journalism world, where international bureaus are far from cost effective for major news organizations and foreign correspondents are fast becoming their most dispensable employees, this breed of reporters is dwindling.

The good news – if there was ever one in journalism these days – is that new media is taking up the slack. There is a whole new host of Web sites that are dedicating themselves to reporting major issues from different parts of the world; many of these sites are implementing innovative ways to gather information from around the globe, and are forming robust online communities while they’re at it. Continue reading