Tag Archives: adrian short

Don't stop us digging into public spending data

A disturbing discovery by Chris Taggart last week: a number of councils in the UK are handing over their ‘open’ data to a company which only allows it to be downloaded for “personal” use.

As Chris himself points out, this runs completely against the spirit of the push to release public data in a number of ways:

  • Data cannot be used for “commercial gain”. This includes publishers wanting to present the information in ways that make most sense to the reader, and startups wanting to find innovative ways to involve people in their local area. Oh, and that whole ‘Big Society‘ stuff.
  • The way the sites are built means you couldn’t scrape this information with a computer anyway
  • It’s only a part of the data. “Download the data from SpotlightOnSpend and it’s rather different from the published data [on the Windsor & Maidenhead site]. Different in that it is missing core data that is in W&M published data (e.g. categories), and that includes data that isn’t in the published data (e.g. data from 2008).”

It’s a worrying path. As Chris sums it up: ” Councils hand over all their valuable financial data to a company which aggregates for its own purposes, and, er, doesn’t open up the data, shooting down all those goals of mashing up the data, using the community to analyse and undermining much of the good work that’s been done.”

The Transparency Board quickly issued a statement about this issue saying that “urgent” measures are taking place to rectify the problem.

And Spikes Cavell, who make the software, responded in Information Age, pointing out that “it is first and foremost a spend analysis software and consultancy supplier, and that it publishes data through SpotlightOnSpend as a free, optional and supplementary service for its local government customers. The hope is that this might help the company to win business, he explains, but it is not a money-spinner in itself.”

They are now promising to make the data available for download in its “raw form”, although it’s not clear what that will be. Adrian Short’s comment to the piece is worth reading.

Nevertheless, this is an issue that anyone interested in holding power to account should keep a close eye on. And to that aim, Chris has started an investigation on Help Me Investigate to find out how and why councils are giving access to their spending data. Please join it and help here.

(Comment or email me on paul at helpmeinvestigate.com if you want an invitation.)

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Data journalism pt2: Interrogating data

This is a draft from a book chapter on data journalism (the first, on gathering data, is here). I’d really appreciate any additions or comments you can make – particularly around ways of spotting stories in data, and mistakes to avoid.

UPDATE: It has now been published in The Online Journalism Handbook.

“One of the most important (and least technical) skills in understanding data is asking good questions. An appropriate question shares an interest you have in the data, tries to convey it to others, and is curiosity-oriented rather than math-oriented. Visualizing data is just like any other type of communication: success is defined by your audience’s ability to pick up on, and be excited about, your insight.” (Fry, 2008, p4)

Once you have the data you need to see if there is a story buried within it. The great advantage of computer processing is that it makes it easier to sort, filter, compare and search information in different ways to get to the heart of what – if anything – it reveals. Continue reading

Crowdsourcing thoughts on council newspapers: #councilpapers

The previous two posts on the role of local authorities in regional news sparked a bit of crowdsourcing on Twitter: “Do you think your council newspaper is worth having?” I asked. The responses, tagged #councilpapers, can be seen at this Twitter search. Below you will find a Wordle cloud of tagged tweetsand a Twickie compilation of the first dozen or so responses.

In addition, Adrian Short suggested people bookmark council papers on Delicious with the tag ‘councilpapers’ – you can see these here. If yours isn’t listed, please add it. Continue reading