I’ve been working recently with the Birmingham Mail to launch Behind The Numbers, a new datablog project with Birmingham City University supported by Help Me Investigate. I’m told that it is probably the UK’s first regional newspaper datablog, although whether that’s a meaningful claim is debatable*.
The first story generated by the project – what is the worst time to be seen at A&E – was published in the newspaper a week ago. But it’s what happens next that’s going to be interesting.
At the centre of the datablog will be a tension that’s important to address up front: it will (or should) be a site of exchange: not just about transparency in public spending, health, crime, education and so on, for example, but also transparency within journalism.
In the datablog’s first week this tension has already been put to the test: it’s encouraging to see newspaper staff providing the data behind stories – allowing, for example, food standards ratings to be mapped by Duarte Romero – while one front page story has already led to the beginnings of a conversation that I hope will put local crime data into a wider perspective.
The online platform allows for different angles on the same story: a front page splash on local re-offending rates can be followed by the ‘bigger picture’ on how those compare with other areas (quite well, actually). A story about unsatisfactory food hygiene can lead to a (widely shared) map to ‘look at your local area’.
Then there’s a second tension: between the expertise of student journalists, bloggers and local citizens, and how those students benefit from the access and knowledge of local hacks. This is the ‘free content’ issue.
Of course ‘free content’ is free neither for the publisher** (which should allow staff time to support and edit it) nor the creator (who should benefit in some way, for example by getting further information that they would have been otherwise unable to; or by getting support and access).
It is, in other words, a barter economy. And the newspaper needs to make sure they have something to exchange or there will be no market.
Thankfully on this front the Post & Mail have experience of Joanna Geary‘s pioneering work in building relationships with hyperlocal blogs, and David Higgerson‘s follow-up work in opening up photo archives to bloggers as part of that ‘barter’ exchange. But will they be prepared to open up data in the same way?
If they do, then I hope it can do for the already-healthy data community in Birmingham what Geary did for the blogging community: stimulating it and helping it to grow even further.
Along the way, I also hope it will provide incentives for (or remove barriers to) both journalists and student journalists to do more and better journalism with data.
As part of that, I’m organising a regular Hacks/Hackers meetup to support both camps, and useful datasets and ‘recipes’ with my Help Me Investigate hat on. Funnily enough, this mirrors Richard Millington’s recent triad of “motivation, opportunity, ability”: it’s not enough to give people one or the other.
You can read more about it on the Help Me Investigate blog, in this introductory article on the Birmingham Mail website, and this Journalism.co.uk report, which includes interviews with both the newspaper’s Ben Hurst and MA student Duarte. As Ben says in that report:
“Journalism is changing and I think possibly there’s going to be a more collaborative approach to things … the way people communicate now means that stories and investigations do not just come from journalists.
“We don’t know exactly where it’s going but it’s an interesting evolution of what’s going on [in investigative journalism] and hopefully it will take off elsewhere as well. I can’t see it not happening elsewhere.”
I’ll continue to blog about the project as I learn from it.
*There are many wonderful regional data journalists: Claire Miller covers data in South Wales, where they have a datastore (I’m told it’s more of a tag page than a datablog, but that feels like splitting hairs); David Elks stuns in Staffordshire; Paul Gallagher and the Manchester Evening News has produced award-winning work (and now Andrew Stuart is working there too); David Higgerson has been known to turn his hand to a bit of data work on various Trinity Mirror titles, and at the Guardian Media Group’s n0tice platform there’s been some work by Sarah Hartley on geolocated data. There are probably others you can tell me about too.
I should also mention The “national-not-regional” Scotsman’s datablog, which was set up by Telegraph trainee Jennifer O’Mahoney during her time there on placement (and sadly not updated after she finished her time on the paper).
**It’s notable on this front that Trinity Mirror’s latest job cuts announcement included the creation of 26 new regional jobs that include digital editors and the “curation” of community content.