Tag Archives: birmingham

Google Digital News Roadshow in Birmingham December 14

Google’s Digital News Roadshow comes to Birmingham on Monday December 14. It’s open to journalists, hyperlocal bloggers and journalism students, as well as pretty much “anyone with a strong interest in journalism.”

Here’s the blurb:

“Google News Lab and Trinity Mirror Group invite you to attend this free workshop session where short, bite size presentations;  will give you a clear overview of some of the tools, tips and tech that journalists are using around the world to complement their stories. Speakers will provide examples and case studies that could help inspire and engage your audiences.

It’s free, and drinks and “light refreshments” are included. Register here.

Join an election hackday at the BBC in Birmingham, Monday April 27

Hacks Hackers Birmingham logo

I’m organising an election hackday at the BBC in Birmingham on Monday April 27.

The event will involve journalists from the BBC and other news websites in the Midlands – but more importantly it’s open to anyone who wants to get stuck into data related to the key issues this election.

If you want to sign up to take part you can do so here. That page also includes details on times and location.

Some more details:

  • We’ll be particularly looking at issues affecting young people, and those affecting female voters.
  • But immigration, welfare and employment, the NHS, the economy, rural issues, the environment and anything else are all options too.
  • Some teams will focus on stories, spending some of the day turning the leads they find in the data into stories with quotes and other elements.
  • Some teams will be focused on tools: from interactive maps to resources to make it easier for journalists to fact-check claims made by candidates.
  • If you can’t make the whole day but want to contribute something, let me know and we’ll see what we can do.

CCTV spending by councils/how many police officers would that pay? – statistics in context

News organisations across the country will today be running stories based on a report by Big Brother Watch into the amount spent on CCTV surveillance by local authorities (PDF). The treatment of this report is a lesson in how journalists approach figures, and why context is more important than raw figures.

BBC Radio WM, for example, led this morning on the fact that Birmingham topped the table of spending on CCTV. But Birmingham is the biggest local authority in the UK by some distance, so this fact alone is not particularly newsworthy – unless, of course, you omit this fact or allow anyone from the council to point it out (ahem).

Much more interesting was the fact that the second biggest spender was Sandwell – also in the Radio WM region. Sandwell spent half as much as Birmingham – but its population is less than a third the size of its neighbour. Put another way, Sandwell spent 80% more per head of population than Birmingham on CCTV (£18 compared to Birmingham’s £10 per head).

Being on a deadline wasn’t an issue here: that information took me only a few minutes to find and work out.

The Press Association’s release on the story focused on the Birmingham angle too – taking the Big Brother Watch statements and fleshing them out with old quotes from those involved in the last big Birmingham surveillance story – the Project Champion scheme – before ending with a top ten list of CCTV spenders.

The Daily Mail, which followed a similar line, at least managed to mention that some smaller authorities (Woking and Breckland) had spent rather a lot of money considering their small populations.

There’s a spreadsheet of populations by local authority here.

How many police officers would that pay for?

A few outlets also repeated the assertions on how many nurses or police officers the money spent on surveillance would have paid for.

The Daily Mail quoted the report as saying that “The price of providing street CCTV since 2007 would have paid for more than 13,500 police constables on starting salaries of just over £23,000”. The Birmingham Mail, among others, noted that it would have paid the salaries of more than 15,000 nurses.

And here we hit a second problem.

The £314m spent on CCTV since 2007 would indeed pay for 13,500 police officers on £23,000 – but only for one year. On an ongoing basis, it would have paid the wages of 4,500 police officers (it should also be pointed out that the £314m figure only covered 336 local authorities – the CCTV spend of those who failed to respond would increase this number).

Secondly, wages are not the only cost of employment, just as installation is not the only cost of CCTV. The FOI request submitted by Big Brother Watch is a good example of this: not only do they ask for installation costs, but operation and maintenance costs, and staffing costs – including pension liabilities and benefits.

There’s a great ‘Employee True Cost Calculator‘ on the IT Centa website which illustrates this neatly: you have to factor in national insurance, pension contributions, overheads and other costs to get a truer picture.

Don’t blame Big Brother Watch

Big Brother Watch’s report is a much more illuminating, and statistically aware, read than the media coverage. Indeed, there’s a lot more information about Sandwell Council’s history in this area which would have made for a better lead story on Radio WM, juiced up the Birmingham Mail report, or just made for a decent story in the Express and Star (which instead simply ran the PA release UPDATE: they led the print edition with a more in-depth story, which was then published online later – see comments).

There’s also more about spending per head, comparisons between councils of different sizes, and between spending on other things*, and spending on maintenance, staffing (where Sandwell comes top) and new cameras – but it seems most reporters didn’t look beyond the first page, and the first name on the leaderboard.

It’s frustrating to see news organisations pass over important stories such as that in Sandwell for the sake of filling column inches and broadcast time with the easiest possible story to write. The result is a homogenous and superficial product: a perfect example of commodified news.

I bet the people at Big Brother Watch are banging their heads on their desks to see their digging reported with so little depth. And I think they could learn something from Wikileaks on why that might be: they gave it to all the media at the same time.

Wikileaks learned a year ago that this free-to-all approach reduced the value of the story, and consequently the depth with which it was reported. But by partnering with one news organisation in each country Wikileaks not only had stories treated more seriously, but other news organisations chasing new angles jealously.

*While we’re at it, the report also points out that the UK spends more on CCTV per head than 38 countries do on defence, and 5 times more in total than Uganda spends on health. “UK spends more on CCTV than Bangladesh does on defence” has a nice ring to me. That said, those defence spending figures turn out to be from 2004 and earlier, and so are not exactly ideal (Wolfram Alpha is a good place to get quick stats like this – and suggests a much higher per capita spend)

Creating an emergency notification system in 15 hours

I’ve written a post on the Scraperwiki blog about a hackathon I attended where a small group of developers and people with experience of crowdsourcing in emergencies created a fantastic tool to inform populations in an emergency.

The primary application is non-journalistic, but the subject matter has obvious journalistic potential for any event that requires exchanges of information. Here are just some that spring to mind:

  • A protest where protestors and local residents can find out where it is at that moment and what streets are closed.
  • A football match with potential for violence (i.e. local derby) where supporters can be alerted of any trouble and what routes to use to avoid it.
  • A music festival where you could text the name of the bands you want to see and receive alerts of scheduled appearances and any delays
  • A conference where you could receive all the above – as well as text updates on presentations that you’re missing (taken from hashtagged tweets, even)

There are obvious commercial applications for some of the above too – you might have to register your mobile ahead of the event and pay a fee to ensure you receive the texts.

Not bad for 15 hours’ work.

You can read the blog post in full here.

Local newspaper data journalism – school admissions in Birmingham

data journalism at the Birmingham Mail - school admissions data

The Birmingham Mail has been trying its hand at data journalism with school admissions data. It’s a good place to start – the topic attracts a lot of interest (and so justifies the investment of time) while people tend to be interested in more than just who finishes top and bottom of the tables (justifying the choice of medium).

The results are impressive. Applications data is plotted on a Google map on the main page, while an “interactive chart” page allows you to compare schools across various criteria, and also narrow the sample by selecting from two drop down menus (town and school).

The charts have been made in Tableau, which includes a download link at the bottom. However, you need Tableau itself (free, but PC only) to open it.

A further page features links to tables for each area. Sadly, the pages containing tables do not contain any link to the raw data. This presents an extra hurdle to users – although you can scrape the table into a Google spreadsheet using the =import formula. If you want to see how, here’s a spreadsheet I created from the data by doing just that. Click on the first cell to see the formula that generates it.

I asked David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror’s Head of Multimedia and the man whose name appears on the Tableau data, to explain the process behind the project. It seems the information was a combination of freely available data and that acquired via FOI.

“The Mail took the data available – number of places available, number of first choice applicants and number of total applicants – and worked out a ratio of first choice applicants per place. This is relevant to parents because councils try to allocate places to children based on preference once they’ve decided which schools a child is eligible for. Eligibility varies depending on type of school.

“The figures showed how popular faith schools were, and also how fierce competition was for places at grammar schools. That’s the story which generated most interest.

“As you’ve said on your blog, the hardest part was making the data uniform, and the making it relevant to readers.

“In print, it ran across three days. Day one was grammar schools, day two was all schools and day three revealed how catchment areas for oversubscribed schools which use distance from school to fill their last few places.

“Online, Google Fusion was used to create maps, Tableau for the interactive chart which lets people choose based on town or school, and Tableizer for the quick tables which appear in the section too. We also had a play with Scribble Maps, which we think has real potential for print/online newsrooms.”

It seems education reporter Kat Keogh deserves the credit for spotting the stories in the data, “with the usual support you’d expect in the newsroom – newsdesk etc.”

David and Anna Jeys experimented with the online presentation and others laid out the data for print.

Hyperlocal Voices: Julia Larden (Acocks Green Focus Group)

Hyperlocal voices - Acocks Green Focus Group blog

Today’s Hyperlocal Voices interview is with Julia Larden, chair of the Acocks Green Focus Group blog, which campaigns to make Acocks Green a “better place to live, work and shop”. The group was established in 2004 and the blog followed in 2007. “We are less likely to get confused or get our facts slightly muddled” than professional journalists, says Julia. Here’s the full interview:

Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds before setting it up?

That’s a bit complicated. Originally the blog was set up, more as a straight website, by a member who has long since left the area. It was not working very well at that time, and the ex-member was also asking for quite a lot of money to carry it on. I don’t think the member had any particular background in IT – he was in education, although he has set up a few small websites of his own. I had done some work for it, written some materials and supplied some photographs. My son, who runs a small software company, agreed to take the whole thing into his care for a bit.

Things lay dormant and then, when my son had time he simply picked the content up and plonked the whole thing into a WordPress blog – one of the slightly posher ones that you have to pay a bit for, but he has some sort of contract and can get quite a few of these blogs, so the group just pays him a very nominal sum each year.

It then sat there for a bit longer with not very much happening except the occasional comment, and then several members pointed out that it was a valuable resource which we were not using properly.

One of the members had web experience (running her own online teaching company) and started to make it into a far more interesting blog, asking for more materials, creating new pages and adding in bits and pieces and an opinion survey of the area – as a launch gimmick. (We have kept that – it still gets a lot of interest – more since I shifted it to another page, for some reason.) Continue reading

Hyperlocal voices: Jon Bounds (Birmingham: It’s Not Shit)

Hyperlocal blog Birmingham: it's not shit

Jon Bounds surely has the claim to the most memorable title of a hyperlocal blog. Birmingham: It’s Not Shit (“Mildly sarcastic since 2002”) is a legend of the local and national blogging scene in which Jon has been a pioneer. In the latest of my ‘Hyperlocal Voices’ series, he describes the history of the site:

Who were the people behind BiNS, and what were their backgrounds before setting it up?

There was, and to a large extent still is, just me Jon Bounds. Although I’ve now got a couple of ‘columnists’ and feel that there are people around that I can call on to let me have a break.

I’ve an odd background of a Degree in Computer Science and a postgrad (CIty & Guilds) qualification in Journalism (and a brief, not entirely successful time as a freelancer on very poor music publications), but it was really working on internet design books in the late 90s that made me think about “the web” as a method of sharing.

As a kid I’d run fanzines (computer games and later football), but there were real creatives getting to grips with the web at that time and that was exciting.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

The blog part of the site came a couple of years after the site itself — which was originally a much flatter website with funny articles/video and a forum. The idea behind the site came as a direct reaction to the terribly drab view of the city that Marketing Birmingham/the Council put forward for the European City of Culture bid in 2002 — and the fact that all of the local media went unquestioningly with it.

Birmingham wasn’t – and still isn’t – a city of loft living and canalside bars, yet “organisations” only seemed comfortable with that little bit of it. To cover the bits of Brum that real people recognise and care about is still the main thrust of the site. Continue reading