2018 has been a good year for UK local data journalism — here’s the story so far

Local data journalism in the UK has been undergoing a quiet revolution in the last 12 months, but 2018 in particular has seen a number of landmarks already in its first few months. Here’s some of the highlights in just its first 12 and a half weeks…

January: BBC Shared Data Unit publishes its first secondee-led investigation

The BBC Shared Data Unit had already been producing stories before in late 2017 it took on its first three-month secondees from the news industry. Over the next 12 weeks they received training in data journalism and work on a joint investigation.

January saw the publication of the first results of those secondees’ efforts: an investigation into the how the compensation bill for NHS mistakes that took place before 1995 had begun to rise for the first time in five years.

The story was published on both BBC England and BBC Wales Online, picked up by over a dozen local TV and radio programmes, and by The Times newspaper.

But it was the scale of pickup by local newspapers which was really striking, demonstrating the impact of journalists from those organisations inside the team (the secondees worked for titles within Newsquest, Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press): over 60 titles from Sunderland to Lynn worked with the Shared Data Unit to run local stories based on the data and briefing pack which was distributed a week before publication — a noticeably higher rate of pickup than stories created before the secondees’ involvement.

February: The Bureau Local’s Big Council Budget Hack

At the start of February the Bureau Local team organised a series of hackdays across the country.

In Coventry, Leeds, Newcastle, London and Manchester journalists, over 160 participants from a range of backgrounds got stuck into data on council spending (The Bureau Local’s post on the events lists “Local councillors, a care worker, a disabled woman and her carer, a mum and her child, coders, statisticians and academics” among those to take part).

The hackdays, and the work that had led up to them, fed into a national front page story in The Times and coverage on ITV News; local newspapers from Cumbria and Yorkshire to Norwich and Devon ran stories, while outside of traditional media tools and stories were put together by ODI Leeds, the Women’s Budget Group, data visualisation expert Rob Radburn, software developers and students (including my own). Subjects covered ranged from cuts to sexual health budgets to cuts to obesity funding.

The preparation for the hackday, and its scale of engagement with non-journalists, represent an important landmark for the Bureau Local project. Its focus on empowering collaborators through reporting recipes, an open Slack group — and, crucially, hiring a community organiser — are just some of the factors which helped the team win a European Press Prize for Innovation the following month.

And the story doesn’t stop with a deadline: the Bureau Local are encouraging people to continue to dig into their local councils’ budgets using the documents they have shared.

March: Shared Data Unit secondees return to local newspapers — and happy birthday Bureau Local!

At the start of March the BBC’s Shared Data Unit secondees returned to their newspapers with over 3 months of data journalism training and experience under their belts.

One of the most interesting aspects of this project is the impact those secondees might have on the culture of news reporting — and the early signs are good.

The Bradford Argus’s Claire Wilde had already been putting her skills to use writing a data-led explainer on the local council tax rise, and upon her return delivered a number of training sessions on data journalism for reporters within Newsquest. This week saw her join the Yorkshire Post as a crime correspondent.

At the Birmingham Mail Annette Belcher has been working with MA Data Journalism students on a number of projects, while in Northampton Paul Lynch can perhaps be excused for being occupied in the short term with the small task of reporting on the first council in the UK to declare itself effectively bankrupt in two decades.

The middle of March also saw a milestone passed by the BBC England Data Unit (a separate team, established in 2015), as it published its 100th GitHub repoone for each story it had produced or been involved in.

And as the end of the month approached, the Bureau Local celebrated its one-year anniversary: this Twitter thread rounds up some of the key moments from that first 12 months…


PS: Not forgetting the Trinity Mirror data unit

It may ruin a neatly circular narrative, but while the two new crews in town may be making headlines I can’t finish this post without pointing out that throughout 2018 Trinity Mirror’s pioneering data unit — a major influence on both the BBC and Bureau models — has continued to do great work too. David Ottewell has his own regular roundup of their highlights on his Medium blog, which is well worth following.

Disclosure: I have worked on various stories with the BBC England Data Unit and deliver some of the training for secondees in the Shared Data Unit.


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