Monthly Archives: February 2011

Mobile journalism: Section 44 is dead – long live Section 43

One of the pictures the student was taking at the time he was stopped by plain-clothes officers

An image taken by the student when he was stopped by plain-clothes officers

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 was an ongoing problem for photographers and journalists using mobile phones who would find themselves stopped, searched, and sometimes arrested by police. After ongoing pressure and a judgement in the European Court of Human Rights, the section was finally suspended last July.

Now Amateur Photographer reports on the Metropolitan Police defending officers’ decision to stop and search a student for merely taking photographs near a school (the image above was being taken when he was approached by police). The search was done under Section 43, which “can only be enforced if a police officer ‘reasonably suspects’ a person to be a terrorist.”

Meanwhile, police are seeking new powers to replace those given under Section 44.

If you use mobile technology in your journalism, it’s worth keeping the stop and search bust card about you.

h/t Ewen Rankin

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Matt Wells on The Guardian’s interactive protests Twitter map

Twitter network of Arab protests - interactive map | guardian.co.uk

Twitter network of Arab protests – interactive map | guardian.co.uk

The Guardian have published an impressive map displaying Twitter coverage of protests around the Arab world and the Middle East. I asked Matt Wells, who oversaw the project, to explain how it came about.

The initial idea, which I should credit to deputy editor Ian Katz, was to build something that showcased the tweets of our correspondents, along a broader network of vetted tweeters in different countries. We wanted to connect all of these on a map, so you could click on a country and see relevant live-updating tweets.

I was asked to oversee it. The main thing was to check out the best English-language tweeters in each country – preferably people who appeared reliable, who were involved in first-hand reporting themselves, and who did a lot of retweeting of others.

I started by asking our correspondents who they followed, then broadened it out from there. We asked everyone if they minded being included – we had one refusal from a Tweeter in a particularly authoritartian country who was worried about the exposure. Everyone else thought it was a great idea.

Meanwhile one of our developers, Garry Blight, overseen by Alastair Dant, set about building it. As with anything of this kind, it took a bit longer than orginally anticipated, but we had it ready on the day that Mubarak fell. And brilliantly, it has worked for every country since then.

It’s powered by a Google spreadsheet – so it’s really easy to add new people and to attach them to particular countries or search terms.

And it should be very easily adaptable for other news events around the world.

Help Me Investigate is now open source

I have now released the source code behind Help Me Investigate, meaning others can adapt it, install it, and add to it if they wish to create their own crowdsourcing platform or support the idea behind it.

This follows the announcement 2 weeks ago on the Help Me Investigate blog (more coverage on Journalism.co.uk and Editors Weblog),

The code is available on GitHub, here.

Collaborators wanted

I’m looking for collaborators and coders to update the code to Rails 3, write documentation to help users install it, improve the code/test, or even be the project manager for this project.

Over the past 18 months the site has surpassed my expectations. It’s engaged hundreds of people in investigations, furthered understanding and awareness of crowdsourcing, and been runner-up for Multimedia Publisher of the Year. In the process it attracted attention from around the world – people wanting to investigate everything from drug running in Mexico to corruption in South Africa.

Having the code on one site meant we couldn’t help those people: making it open source opens up the possibility, but it needs other people to help make that a reality.

If you know anyone who might be able to help, please shoot them a link. Or email me at paul(at)helpmeinvestigate.com

Many thanks to Chris Taggart and Josh Hart for their help with moving the code across.

Councils should allow public meetings to be recorded, says Pickles

A welcome window of clarity on the issue of whether bloggers can record public council meetings today: Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has weighed in to say that public meetings should be open to bloggers and that they should “routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency”

It’s an issue that I’ve been investigating for a while on Help Me Investigate: while some councils actively stream their own meetings, and others allow members of the public to do the same, some councils explicitly forbid recording, others allow audio but require mayoral permission for video, and a few have conducted ‘investigations’ of citizens for daring to record public proceedings (and councillors), or ejected them from the room (see video above).

Pickles’ guidance – and the accompanying letter sent to all councils – provides useful material to show uncooperative councils.

The letter calls on councils to give “credible community or ‘hyper-local’ bloggers and online broadcasters the same routine access to council meetings as the traditional accredited media have”

It also reassures councils that “giving greater access will not contradict data protection law requirements”. This is a key part, as data protection is often used as an excuse to prevent filming. The Help Me Investigate investigation revealed a worrying ignorance regarding data protection laws by councils even in formal internal reports. Other areas, including privacy, copyright, defamation and “procedural matters” are covered in this blog post rounding up some of the investigation’s findings.

Other material that bloggers may find useful are mentioned in Pickles’ announcement. They include The Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960The Local Government Act of 1972 and The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985.

I’m working on producing a cribsheet for bloggers wanting to record their local council’s public meetings. If you want to help, please leave a comment or subscribe to the investigation blog.

UPDATE: Philip John is compiling a list of who’s doing what in terms of recording, streaming, tweeting and liveblogging council meetings.

Is social capital dehumanising? (comment call)

Following on from my post about teaching community-based journalism, I had an interesting correspondence with James Brooks, who found terms like “social capital” dehumanising, refused to join Facebook and many other web platforms on ethical grounds (that they conflate the professional and private), and took issue with the idea that my assignment suggested that he “should become an active member” of certain “communities”.

I wanted to explore this further, because I think this is a complex area that deserves fleshing out. So, is social capital dehumanising? Should journalists refuse to join social networks on ethical grounds? And does a journalist have to engage with communities to do their job?

PS: James is happy for me to blog about it.

Bella Hurrell on data journalism and the BBC News Specials Team

BBC_Special_ReportsBella Hurrell is the Specials Editor with BBC News Online. I asked her how data journalism was affecting their work for a forthcoming article. Here is her response in full:

The BBC news specials team produces multimedia interactives, daily graphics as well as more complex data visualisations. The team consists of journalists, designers and developers all working closely together, sitting alongside each other.

We have found that proximity really important to the success of projects. Although we have done this for a while, increasingly other organisations are reorganising along these lines after coming to realise the benefits of breaking down silos and co-locating people with different skillsets can produce more innovative solutions at a faster pace.

As data visualisation has come into the zeitgeist, and we have started using it more regularly in our story-telling, journalists and designers on the specials team have become much more proficient at using basic spreadsheet applications like Excel or Google Docs. We’ve boosted these and other skills through in house training or external summer schools and conferences.

Data as a service, data as a story

There are two interrelated elements to data journalism: firstly data as a service, often involving publicly available data.  The school league tables which the BBC news website has produced every year for over a decade are an example here. We know they are hugely popular and they provide a valuable public service for users. More recently the government has started to get better at putting data / information  online, so we have adjusted our coverage. Instead of replicating what is done by government sites (such as providing individual school pages) we try to provide value by doing something extra, such as mini charts and the ability to select and compare schools – as well as news stories and analysis.

The second element is data as a story. The simple fact that loads of data has been published is not really very interesting to most people. Data is only useful if it is personal – I want to find out about schools in my area, restaurants near me and so on – or when it reveals something remarkable. The duck pond debacle from MPs expenses data or the Iraq civilian death records kept by the US revealed by Wikileaks’ release of the Iraq war documents are both examples of individual stories from big tranches of data that really resonated.

Dealing with large numbers of documents

With data stories that involve thousands of documents we face two challenges. Firstly deciding whether we can provide a platform or tool for people to look at the documents or data. This can be valuable but might involve significant technical resources and may not be worth doing if others are already providing this service.

Secondly we need to find the stories and then report them but clearly that can be tricky when there are thousands of documents to examine. Crowdsourcing is an obvious approach but we need to use what the crowd tells us. When readers told us about potential stories they spotted in the MPs expenses data we pulled in our whole politics team off normal duties to sift users’ questions and put them directly to the relevant MPs. Then we published their answers on our site. This is a very resource heavy approach and not sustainable over a long time.

Another model for reporting stories that involve large sets of data was Panorama’s public sector pay story, where the website partnered with the investigative unit to tell the story online. The Panorama team spent months collecting data and we provided simple visualisations and  a way for users to examine the data.

Does Twitter improve your site’s search engine results?

A Tweet's Effect On Rankings - An Unexpected Case Study

Yes. Or at least according to a couple of blog posts in the SEO blogosphere.

Back in December Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan asked what “social signals” Google and Bing count in their algorithms. Previously, the answer would have been none, as far as Twitter is concerned, because like most social media (including blog comments, forum posts and social networks) any links posted on Twitter carry a ‘nofollow’ tag, instructing search engines to ignore it.

But now that Twitter has signed deals with the big search engines, they now get the “firehose” of data from Twitter direct – without nofollow attributes. Bing tell Sullivan:

“We take into consideration how often a link has been tweeted or retweeted, as well as the authority of the Twitter users that shared the link.

Google tells him:

“We use the data only in limited situations, not for all of general websearch.”

The post contains more information about how both search engines use the “social authority” of a user (followers, followed, etc.) to further rank links.

A case study

Yesterday, the issue gained a fascinating case study from SEOmoz (image at top), when one of their articles suddenly appeared on the first page of Google search engine results for the term “Beginner’s Guide” following a tweet from Smashing Magazine and hundreds of retweets. Continue reading