The Birmingham Mail has been trying its hand at data journalism with school admissions data. It’s a good place to start – the topic attracts a lot of interest (and so justifies the investment of time) while people tend to be interested in more than just who finishes top and bottom of the tables (justifying the choice of medium).
The results are impressive. Applications data is plotted on a Google map on the main page, while an “interactive chart” page allows you to compare schools across various criteria, and also narrow the sample by selecting from two drop down menus (town and school).
The charts have been made in Tableau, which includes a download link at the bottom. However, you need Tableau itself (free, but PC only) to open it.
A further page features links to tables for each area. Sadly, the pages containing tables do not contain any link to the raw data. This presents an extra hurdle to users – although you can scrape the table into a Google spreadsheet using the =import formula. If you want to see how, here’s a spreadsheet I created from the data by doing just that. Click on the first cell to see the formula that generates it.
I asked David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror’s Head of Multimedia and the man whose name appears on the Tableau data, to explain the process behind the project. It seems the information was a combination of freely available data and that acquired via FOI.
“The Mail took the data available – number of places available, number of first choice applicants and number of total applicants – and worked out a ratio of first choice applicants per place. This is relevant to parents because councils try to allocate places to children based on preference once they’ve decided which schools a child is eligible for. Eligibility varies depending on type of school.
“The figures showed how popular faith schools were, and also how fierce competition was for places at grammar schools. That’s the story which generated most interest.
“As you’ve said on your blog, the hardest part was making the data uniform, and the making it relevant to readers.
“In print, it ran across three days. Day one was grammar schools, day two was all schools and day three revealed how catchment areas for oversubscribed schools which use distance from school to fill their last few places.
“Online, Google Fusion was used to create maps, Tableau for the interactive chart which lets people choose based on town or school, and Tableizer for the quick tables which appear in the section too. We also had a play with Scribble Maps, which we think has real potential for print/online newsrooms.”
It seems education reporter Kat Keogh deserves the credit for spotting the stories in the data, “with the usual support you’d expect in the newsroom – newsdesk etc.”
David and Anna Jeys experimented with the online presentation and others laid out the data for print.
“As you’ve said on your blog, the hardest part was making the data uniform, and the making it relevant to readers.”
That’s true of any data including straight-up text – if you look at a popular science show like The Sky at Night you can, after reading NASA’s press releases and technical websites, observe that difficult concepts are altered to become comprehensible and relevant to the audience who mostly aren’t working in say astrophysics or rocket propulsion. Similar case with Feynman, Sagan and any scientist who ventured to layman’s terms.
For this you’ve got a tonne of information that must be converted and condensed so the audience ideally derives the benefit of insight. It’s rare to see a graph/chart heavy article in a Trinity rag; that’s broadsheet territory. You’re likelier to get one simple bar chart with a big picture of a school incase anyone forgot what one looks like.
Point is that for any journalist who has a cache of information concerning anything there’s choices to be made and a tone to be achieved. That’s the job for any who have a modicum of investigation in their hackery. It’s also a skill that is lacking; flexibility in language is vital – however my unresearched, evidence-less belief is that there remains a pompous line that sees papers oversimplify as readers are mostly ‘uneducated’.
It’s the birthday today: Paul I never got the statuette we spoke about. However these are trying times so if you used the slow post it’s understandable: Not by me as I wanted my frigging dachshund figurine in time, but kindlier people would let it slide.
Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.
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