This has been the election when the geeks came in from the cold. There may be no Nate Silver-style poster boy for the genre this side of the pond – but instead, I believe we’ve finally seen the culmination of a decade of civic hacking outside the newsroom. And if anyone deserves credit for that, it is not the Guardian or the Telegraph, but MySociety, Tweetminster, and Democracy Club.
Looking back at my review of online election reporting in 2010 it’s striking how much has changed. Back then data journalism’s contribution was all about interactive presentation of results, but little else.
In the time between that election and this one, however, two things have changed within the news industry: firstly, a more code-literate workforce, including dedicated data project teams; and secondly, the rise of mobile, social media-driven consumption and, as part of that, visual journalism.
Civic tech moves into the newsroom – a decade after its first contact
The most noticeable result of this in 2015 has been the visible influence of the ‘civic tech‘ movement pioneered by MySociety. Their tools were used by Channel 4 as early as the 2005 election, when they had novelty value – but in 2015 this movement has gone mainstream.
Civic tech in 2015 has been particularly facilitated by the Democracy Club, a mailing list for:
“volunteers that aims to increase the quantity, quality and accessibility of information on election candidates, politicians and democratic processes through digital tools, microvolunteering and collaboration with like-minded organisations.”
Members of the list have created a raft of Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) such as Who Should You Vote For?, PositionDial.com, YourCandidates.org.uk and WhoGetsMyVoteUK. Vote for Policies is typical of these in offering to help you “Compare policies from each party in their own words, and make an informed decision about who to vote for” while Who Shall I Vote For is a “quick, interactive and insightful quiz” to “Discover whose policies match your personality”.
Matthew Smith, creator of the VAA Fantasy Frontbench, believes the 2015 election campaign has been “the first where Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) have reached a level of maturity where their use can no longer be said to be insignificant.”
They include tactical tools too: VoteSwap tells the user what kind of constituency they live in and whether it is worth swapping your vote with someone in a constituency where it is likely to have an impact. Three days before the election it was reported that over 13,000 Labour and Green supporters had used the site to swap votes. Ask your candidate helped users ask questions of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates and Democracy Club CVs allowed users to ask candidates for their CV.
The influence of civic tech on mainstream election coverage
News organisations, traditionally editorially driven, began in 2015 to adopt the practices of ‘civic programming’ in their output.
Trinity Mirror embedded a ‘Find My Seat’ widget in all their coverage across regional newspapers. The tool not only allowed users to find out their local candidates and swing needed to change MP – but also facts on the local economy, cost of living, immigration, health and pensions.
The BBC used similar technology to present candidate information and gave users a quiz about voter engagement, while elsewhere it created a game for users to ‘build their own majority’.
Similar interactives were created by The Guardian and Sky while a more basic but effective ‘coalition calculator’ was built by the FT who also provided an interactive alluvial diagram for users to explore the complexities of who was losing seats to whom.
The rise of the quiz
Quizzes – a genre which has seen a boom as news operations seek to emulate the social media-driven success of BuzzFeed – have been used particularly widely.
Only the mid-market titles appear to have ignored the genre, despite dabbling previously.
The Sun’s quizzes came on its social spin-off Sun Nation, while The Times had the email-driven Red Box and the New Statesman launched its own data-driven election spin-off mini site May2015, much as the New York Times had hosted Nate Silver’s extremely successful FiveThirtyEight election data blog. This includes a sophisticated poll explorer and an equally complex interactive seat calculator. Like The Guardian, The FT also maintained a single page for all its projections.
Elsewhere data journalism has played a significant role editorially in two key respects: more data-driven reporting, and the rise of the factchecking genre.
Factchecking the election
Channel 4’s well established FactCheck was joined during the election by the Guardian’s Reality Check and the BBC’s identically-named project, which was integrated into the corporation’s live online coverage of the leaders’ debates and Question Time. The Mirror’s Ampp3d performed the same role alongside other social media-friendly material.
The leaders’ debates also provided an opportunity for more ad hoc factchecking on social media and on news websites, including BuzzFeed.
An increasing number of organisations outside of traditional media took up the role of holding power to account. These included academics contributing to The Conversation, the Media Standards Trust‘s Election Unspun, and FullFact, which crowdfunded over £30,000 to support its activities.
Data-driven election reporting
Data driven reporting has been particularly influenced by the rapid rise in importance of visual journalism in the last 12 months – particularly when it comes to optimising content for social media.
It also used social media and search trends data itself, as in, for example, The Mirror’s Tweetometer, which showed the top performing tweets from politicians’ accounts (adapted by regional titles), Sky’s ‘Social Election’ tracker, and the use of the ‘Twitter Worm’ by the Sun, LBC, ITV, BBC and others – despite Twitter users not being representative of the wider population.
The BBC even experimented with network analysis of Twitter data:
The Guardian’s hiring of Alberto Nardelli from Tweetminster to run its data team was a significant move and has contributed to particularly sophisticated (both editorially and technically) election coverage from the newspaper.
Trinity Mirror’s establishing of a central data unit in 2013 has also been important, providing the resources to create innovative data driven coverage at both national and local levels. This included the My Manifesto project to survey and present readers’ demands to politicians and data-driven reporting on key claims, gender representation, campaign spending.
Surveys also proved key to Archant’s strategy:
In broadcasting a combined data and visual unit has helped to position BBC as a leader once again when it comes to interactive election coverage.
Elsewhere the influence of Nate Silver on political and financial publishers has been striking, with many shifting in emphasis from punditry to a more informed analysis rooted in data, alongside tools that are useful to its audiences.
But while the geeks may have come in from the cold, they have not been front and centre in this election. Instead the emphasis has been largely on social and mobile (Sky’s election interactives were mobile optimised). In that sense, it has been the ‘social media election’. Perhaps next time, with the coders firmly in place, we will truly see the first data-driven election.