Monthly Archives: May 2011

FAQ: Self-regulation of online media

Another series of questions I’ve been asked – with my answers, published here because I don’t want to repeat myself…

1. You have written that people read blogs and other user generated content because they trust the person not the brand; they link or contribute to that content because ‘a journalist invested social capital’ and trust is related to their reputation, knowledge and connections. In a sense I guess reputation, knowledge and connections is what also underpins trust in curated content (e.g. Storyful). My question is whether this informal reliance on the dynamics of social capital is enough to differentiate what Storyful refers to as the ‘news from the noise’ both for ‘curated’ news and online journalism more widely. Or would, for example, a self-regulatory Code be helpful in making this differentiation transparent?

I think a more sophisticated way of looking at this is that people draw on a range of ‘signals’ to make a judgement about the trustworthiness of content: that includes their personal history of interactions with the author; the author’s formal credentials, including qualifications and employer; the author’s network; the author’s behaviour with others; numerous other factors including for example ratings by strangers, friends and robots; and of course the content itself – is the evidence transparent, the argument /narrative logical, etc.

A self-regulatory Code would add another signal – but one that could be interpreted either way: some will see it as a badge of credibility; others as a badge of ‘sell-out’ or pretence to authority. The history of previous attempts suggest it would not particularly succeed.

I’m by no means an expert on trust – would be interesting to explore more literature on that.

2. The PCC has welcomed online journalists to join it – is there interest among the online journalism community? I appreciate the level of antipathy expressed in the blogging community when this was raised late 2009, but I wonder whether the current consultation in relation to live electronic communications for court reporting by accredited journalists could raise the significance of notions of accreditation (through the PCC or independent to it) for online journalists.

Many people blog precisely because they feel that the press does not self-regulate effectively: in a sense they are competing with the PCC (one academic described bloggers as ‘Estate 4.5’). It has a bad reputation – to stand any change of attracting bloggers it would have to give them a genuine voice and incorporate many of the ethical concerns that they have about journalism. I don’t see that happening.

Accreditation is a key issue, however – or at least respectability to advertisers; some bloggers are moving away from calling themselves ‘blogs’ as they look for more ad revenue. But they are a minority: most do not rely on ad revenue. As access to courts and council meetings is explicitly widened, accreditation is less of a problem.

3. If on-line journalists were to consider self regulation what would be the key principles that might inform it: accuracy, fairness, privacy? What of harm and in particular protection of the under 18’s? Or are such notions irrelevant in the world of social capital?

This post – – is a good summary of how I think the two compare. Most bloggers see themselves as fiercely ethical and you will frequently see them rise up to defend the vulnerable – sometimes unaware of their intimidatory power in attacking those they see as responsible. You will also see them correcting inaccurate reporting.

If anything these notions are more important in a world of social capital: my accuracy, fairness and treatment of the vulnerable dictates part of my social capital. If I make a mistake, my social capital can be damaged for a long time to come – we don’t yet have any concept of our social crimes ‘expiring’ online.


The ethics of using CCTV footage – A Very Dangerous Doctor

A Very Dangerous Doctor is a Channel 4 documentary about David Southall, the controversial doctor who was struck off after “abusing his position” in accusing a mother of killing her son.

The documentary includes CCTV footage of parents smothering their children, filmed covertly as part of Southall’s research into cot deaths. The footage is incredibly distressing – the Independent rightly describe it as “among the most shocking to be shown on TV”. Many tweeted that they were switching off the 100-minute broadcast – barely five minutes in – as a result.

The documentary is an excellent piece of work, and worth watching in full – but the CCTV footage raises an old ethical issue in a new context: is it justified?

There is a wealth of literature on the ethics of war reporting: whether distressing images should be shown, and the arguments for and against.

The spread of CCTV and mobile phone footage, its accessibility and its release by police authorities and availability on YouTube, raises similar questions – whether it is footage of a woman throwing her baby on the floor, race attacks, or the death of a protestor.

What are the questions to ask when you are given such footage? What are the ethical issues to balance? And what about this specific example (the footage begins around 04’25)? I’d love to know what you think.

Merging Datasets with Common Columns in Google Refine

It’s an often encountered situation, but one that can be a pain to address – merging data from two sources around a common column. Here’s a way of doing it in Google Refine…

Here are a couple of example datasets to import into separate Google Refine projects if you want to play along, both courtesy of the Guardian data blog (pulled through the Google Spreadsheets to Yahoo pipes proxy mentioned here):

University fees data (CSV via pipes proxy)

University HESA stats, 2010 (CSV via pipes proxy)

We can now merge data from the two projects by creating a new column from values an existing column within one project that are used to index into a similar column in the other project. Looking at the two datasets, both HESA Code and institution/University look like candidates for merging the data. Which should we go with? I’d go with the unique identifier (i.e. HESA code in the case) every time…

First, create a new column:

Now do the merge, using the cell.cross GREL (Google Refine Expression Language) command. Trivially, and pinching wholesale from the documentation example, we might use the following command to bring in Average Teaching Score data from the second project into the first:

cell.cross("Merge Test B", "HESA code").cells["Average Teaching Score"].value[0]

Note that there is a null entry and an error entry. It’s possible to add a bit of logic to tidy things up a little:

if (value!='null',cell.cross("Merge Test B", "HESA code").cells["Average Teaching Score"].value[0],'')

Here’s the result:

Coping with not quite matching key columns

Another situation that often arises is that you have two columns that almost but don’t quite match. For example, this dataset has a different name representation that the above datasets (Merge Test C):

There are several text processing tools that we can use to try to help us match columns that differ in well-structured ways:

In the above case, where am I creating a new column based on the contents of the Institution column in Merge Test C, I’m using a couple of string processing tricks… The GREL expression may look complicated, but if you build it up in a stepwise fashion it makes more sense.

For example, the command replace(value,"this", "that") will replace occurrences of “this” in the string defined by value with “that”. If we replace “this” with an empty string (” (two single quotes next to each other) or “” (two double quotes next to each other)), we delete it from value: replace(value,"this", "")

The result of this operation can be embedded in another replace statement: replace(replace(value,"this", "that"),"that","the other"). In this case, the first replace will replace occurrences of “this” with “that”; the result of this operation is passed to the second (outer) replace function, which replaces “that” with “the other”). Try building up the expression in realtime, and see what happens. First use:
(what happens?); then:
and then:

The fingerprint() function then separates out the individual words that are left, orders them, and returns the result (more detail). Can you see how this might be used to transform a column that originally contains “The University of Aberdeen” to “aberdeen university”, which might be a key in another project dataset?

When trying to reconcile data across two different datasets, you may find you need to try to minimise the distance between almost common key columns by creating new columns in each dataset using the above sorts of technique.

Be careful not to create false positive matches though; and also be mindful that not everything will necessarily match up (you may get empty cells when using cell.cross; (to mitigate this, filter rows using a crossed column to find ones where there was no match and see if you can correct them by hand). Even if you don’t completely successful cross data from one project to another, you might manage to automate the crossing of most of the rows, minimising the amount of hand crafted copying you might have to do to tidy up the real odds and ends…

So for example, here’s what I ended up using to create a “Pure key” column in Merge Test C:

And in Merge Test A I create a “Complementary Key” column from the University column using fingerprint(value)

From the Complementary Key column in Merge Test A we call out to Merge Test C: cell.cross("Merge Test C", "Pure key").cells["UCAS ID"].value[0]

Obviously, this approach is far from ideal (and there may be more “correct” and/or efficient ways of doing this!) and the process described above is admittedly rather clunky, but it does start to reveal some of what’s involved in trying to bring data across to one Google Refine project from another using columns that don’t quite match in the original dataset, although they do (nominally) refer to the same thing, and does provide a useful introductory exercise to some of the really quite powerful text processing commands in Google Refine …

First Play With R and R-Studio – F1 Lap Time Box Plots

Last summer, at the European Centre for Journalism round table on data driven journalism, I remember saying something along the lines of “your eyes can often do the stats for you”, the implication being that our perceptual apparatus is good at pattern detection, and can often see things in the data that most of us would miss using the very limited range of statistical tools that we are either aware of, or are comfortable using.

I don’t know how good a statistician you need to be to distinguish between Anscombe’s quartet, but the differences are obvious to the eye:

Anscombe's quartet /via Wikipedia

Another shamistician (h/t @daveyp) heuristic (or maybe it’s a crapistician rule of thumb?!) might go something along the lines of: “if you use the right visualisations, you don’t necessarily need to do any statistics yourself”. In this case, the implication is that if you choose a viualisation technique that embodies or implements a statistical process in some way, the maths is done for you, and you get to see what the statistical tool has uncovered.

Now I know that as someone working in education, I’m probably supposed to uphold the “should learn it properly” principle… But needing to know statistics in order to benefit from the use of statistical tools seems to me to be a massive barrier to entry in the use of this technology (statistics is a technology…) You just need to know how to use the technology appropriately, or at least, not use it “dangerously”…

So to this end (“democratising access to technology”), I thought it was about time I started to play with R, the statistical programming language (and rival to SPSS?) that appears to have a certain amount of traction at the moment given the number of books about to come out around it… R is a command line language, but the recently released R-Studio seems to offer an easier way in, so I thought I’d go with that…

Flicking through A First Course in Statistical Programming with R, a book I bought a few weeks ago in the hope that the osmotic reading effect would give me some idea as to what it’s possible to do with R, I found a command line example showing how to create a simple box plot (box and whiskers plot) that I could understand enough to feel confident I could change…

Having an F1 data set/CSV file to hand (laptimes and fuel adjusted laptimes) from the China 2001 grand prix, I thought I’d see how easy it was to just dive in… And it was 2 minutes easy… (If you want to play along, here’s the data file).

Here’s the command I used:
boxplot(Lap.Time ~ Driver, data=lapTimeFuel)

Remembering a comment in a Making up the Numbers blogpost (Driver Consistency – Bahrain 2010) about the effect on laptime distributions from removing opening, in and out lap times, a quick Google turned up a way of quickly stripping out slow times. (This isn’t as clean as removing the actual opening, in and out lap times – it also removes mistake laps, for example, but I’m just exploring, right? Right?!;-)

lapTime2 <- subset(lapTimeFuel, Lap.Time < 110.1)

I could then plot the distribution in the reduced lapTime2 dataset by changing the original boxplot command to use (data=lapTime2). (Note that as with many interactive editors, using your keyboard’s up arrow displays previously entered commands in the current command line; so you can re-enter a previously entered command by hitting the up arrow a few times, then entering return. You can also edit the current command line, using the left and right arrow keys to move the cursor, and the delete key to delete text.)

Prior programming experience suggests this should also work…

boxplot(Lap.Time ~ Driver, data=subset(lapTimeFuel, Lap.Time < 110))

Something else I tried was to look at the distribution of fuel weight adjusted laptimes (where the time penalty from the weight of the fuel in the car is removed):

boxplot(Fuel.Adjusted.Laptime ~ Driver, data=lapTimeFuel)

Looking at the release notes for the latest version of R-Studio suggests that you can build interactive controls into your plots (a bit like Mathematica supports?). The example provided shows how to change the x-range on a plot:
plot(cars, xlim=c(0,x.max)),

Hmm… can we set the filter value dynamically I wonder?

boxplot(Lap.Time ~ Driver, data=subset(lapTimeFuel, Lap.Time < maxval)),

Seems like it…?:-) We can also combine interactive controls:

manipulate(boxplot(Lap.Time ~ Driver, data=subset(lapTimeFuel, Lap.Time < maxval),outline=outline),maxval=slider(100,140),outline = checkbox(FALSE, "Show outliers"))

Okay – that’s enough for now… I reckon that with a handful of commands on a crib sheet, you can probably get quite a lot of chart plot visualisations done, as well as statistical visualisations, in the R-Studio environment; it also seems easy enough to build in interactive controls that let you play with the data in a visually interactive way…

The trick comes from choosing visual statistics approaches to analyse your data that don’t break any of the assumptions about the data that the particular statistical approach relies on in order for it to be applied in any sensible or meaningful way.

[This blog post is written, in part, as a way for me to try to come up with something to say at the OU Statistics Group’s one day conference on Visualisation and Presentation in Statistics. One idea I wanted to explore was: visualisations are powerful; visualisation techniques may incorporate statistical methods or let you “see” statistical patterns; most people know very little statistics; that shouldnlt stop them being able to use statistics as a technology; so what are we going to do about it? Feedback welcome… Err….?!]

Fragments: Glueing Different Data Sources Together With Google Refine

I’m working on a new pattern using Google Refine as the hub for a data fusion experiment pulling together data from different sources. I’m not sure how it’ll play out in the end, but here are some fragments….

Grab Data into Google Refine as CSV from a URL (Proxied Google Spreadsheet Query via Yahoo Pipes)

Firstly, getting data into Google Refine… I had hoped to be able to pull a subset of data from a Google Spreadsheet into Google Refine by importing CSV data obtained from the spreadsheet via a query generated using my Google Spreadsheet/Guardian datastore explorer (see Using Google Spreadsheets as a Database with the Google Visualisation API Query Language for more on this) but it seems that Refine would rather pull the whole of the spreadsheet in (or at least, the whole of the first sheet (I think?!)).

Instead, I had to tweak create a proxy to run the query via a Yahoo Pipe (Google Spreadsheet as a database proxy pipe), which runs the spreadsheet query, gets the data back as CSV, and then relays it forward as JSON:

Here’s the interface to the pipe – it requires the Google spreadsheet public key id, the sheet id, and the query… The data I’m using is a spreadsheet maintained by the Guardian datastore containing UK university fees data (spreadsheet.

You can get the JSON version of the data out directly, or a proxied version of the CSV, as CSV via the More options menu…

Using the Yahoo Pipes CSV output URL, I can now get a subset of data from a Google Spreadsheet into Google Refine…

Here’s the result – a subset of data as defined by the query:

We can now augment this data with data from another source using Google Refine’s ability to import/fetch data from a URL. In particular, I’m going to use the Yahoo Pipe described above to grab data from a different spreadsheet and pass it back to Google Refine as a JSON data feed. (Google spreadsheets will publish data as JSON, but the format is a bit clunky…)

To test out my query, I’m going to create a test query in my datastore explorer using the Guardian datastore HESA returns (2010) spreadsheet URL ( which also has a column containing HESA numbers. (Ultimately, I’m going to generate a URL that treats the Guardian datastore spreadsheet as a database that lets me get data back from the row with a particular HESA code column value. By using the HESA number column in Google Refine to provide the key, I can generate a URL for each institution that grabs its HESA data from the Datastore HESA spreadsheet.)

Hit “Preview Table Headings”, then scroll down to try out a query:

Having tested my query, I can now try the parameters out in the Yahoo pipe. (For example, my query is select D,E,H where D=21 and the key is tpxpwtyiYZwCMowl3gNaIKQ; this grabs data from columns D, E and H where the value of D (HESA Code) is 21). Grab the JSON output URL from the pipe, and use this as a template for the URL template in Google Refine. Here’s the JSON output URL I obtained:

Remember, the HESA code I experiment with was 21, so this is what we want to replace in the URL with the value from the HESA code column in Google Refine…

Here’s how we create the URLs built around/keyed by an appropriate HESA code…

Google Refine does its thing and fetches the data…

Now we process the JSON response to generate some meaningful data columns (for more on how to do this, see Tech Tips: Making Sense of JSON Strings – Follow the Structure).

First say we want to create a new column based on the imported JSON data:

Then parse the JSON to extract the data field required in the new column.

For example, from the HESA data we might extract the Expenditure per student /10:

value.parseJson().value.items[0]["Expenditure per student / 10"]

or the Average Teaching Score (value.parseJson().value.items[0]["Average Teaching Score"]):

And here’s the result:

So to recap:

– we use a Yahoo Pipe to query a Google spreadsheet and get a subset of data from it;
– we take the CSV output from the pipe and use it to create a new Google Refine database;
– we note that the data table in Google Refine has a HESA code column; we also note that the Guardian datastore HESA spreadsheet has a HESA code column;
– we realise we can treat the HESA spreadsheet as a database, and further that we can create a query (prototyped in the datastore explorer) as a URL keyed by HESA code;
– we create a new column based on HESA codes from a generated URL that pulls JSON data from a Yahoo pipe that is querying a Google spreadsheet;
– we parse the JSON to give us a couple of new columns.

And there we have it – a clunky, but workable, route for merging data from two different Google spreadsheets using Google Refine.

‘Dead’ Osama Bin Laden photos – why have so many news sites published them?

Daily Mail leads with fake dead Bin Laden photo

Both the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror today – among with several others in the US (including the New York Post, which credits the image to AP) and other countries – published an image purporting to be that of the dead Osama Bin Laden.

It clearly wasn’t.

Any journalist with a drop of cynicism would have questioned the source of the images – even if they did appear on Pakistan television.

It certainly passed the ‘Too good to be true’ test.

Instead, it was users of Reddit and Twitter who first highlighted the dodgy provenance of the image, and the image it was probably based on. Knight News and MSNBC’s Photo blog‘s followed soon after.

It took me all of 10 seconds to verify that it is a fake – by using TinEye to find other instances of the image, I found this example from last April.

But instead of owning up that their image was a fake, both The Daily Mail and Mirror appear to have simply removed the image from their site, leaving that image to circulate amongst their users. Ego, pure and simple.

PS: More on verifying images and other hoax material here.