Tag Archives: Education

A new Scottish datablog (and a treemap in Liverpool)

The Scotsman has a newish data blog, set up (I’m rather proud to say) by one of my former PA/Telegraph trainees: Jennifer O’Mahony. This is particularly important as so much data covered in the ‘national’ press tends to be English-only due to devolution.

The Department of Education, for example, only publishes English education data. If you want Scottish education data you need to go to the Scottish Government website or Education ScotlandOfsted inspects schools in England; for Scottish schools reports you need to visit HM Inspectorate of Education. (Meanwhile, the National Statistics site, publishes data from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

So if there’s any Scottish data – or that of Wales or Northern Ireland – that you want me to help with, let me or Jennifer know. By way of illustrating the process, here’s a post over on Help Me Investigate: Education on how I helped Jennifer collect data on free school meals in Scotland.

A treemap in Liverpool

On the same note of non-national data journalism, here’s a particularly nice bit of data visualisation at the Liverpool Post. It’s not often you see treemaps on a local newspaper website – this one was designed by Ilan Sheady based on data gathered by City Editor David Bartlett after a day’s data journalism training.

Infographic showing the huge scale of the £5.5bn Liverpool Waters scheme


Why we shouldn’t be discouraging students from writing about students

I have a confession: I have never liked student projects aimed at students. They tend to betray a lazy approach to creativity: after all, what can be less imaginative than a project aimed at ‘people like me’?

They also don’t generally develop the skills that journalism degrees aim for: original research, for example; flexibility in style; or an exploration of professional context.

And I’m not alone: most journalism tutors, when looking for an assignment to give or weighing up a student’s proposal, will run a mile from anything aimed at students. “Go write for the student newspaper if you want to do that.”


But I think my instinctive aversion has been wrong. I think it’s as lazy as the ideas I’ve criticised. And I think it means missing an enormous opportunity.

Traditionally, one of the biggest strengths of the regional journalist was their connection to the communities they reported on. They knew the issues; they knew who to speak to in those communities (and not just who published the press releases); they knew their readers; and they saw the impact of their work.

University students, in contrast, are perhaps at a stage in their life when they are least connected to any community. They are often living in a town or city they have no history in; they are unlikely to run businesses, or belong to any industrial or professional culture; few have children in the local education and health systems. They are inbetweeners.

It is possibly the worst time in somebody’s life to expect them to do journalism.

And the one thing that they are connected to – student life – we steer them away from.

A New Year’s resolution

So I have a New Year’s resolution for 2012: I’m going to change the habit that I’ve acquired from a decade in teaching journalism.

For the first time I am going to assign my students – just one group – a project focused on students.

It will still build those essential skills: original research; flexibility of style; professional context. But those skills will be built upon a knowledge that what they will be doing will have a large audience, and can make a real difference to them.

That means that I will be expecting more. Because they already know the community they are writing about, I will be expecting them to hit the ground running with original leads and story ideas – not trying to hit a story quota with press releases or superficial he-said-she-said conflicts.

Because the project will be online-only, I will be expecting them to be exploring new ways of engaging – and collaborating – with the most connected audiences in the country.

And because they are personally affected by the systems they are reporting on – from employment law and tenants’ rights to student councils and representation – I will be expecting them to research the system itself: where power and accountability lies; where the money goes, and why.

As a result, I’m hoping that students will develop an understanding of how to investigate systems in any field – transferring their experiences of investigating education into investigating the health system, welfare system, local government, or anything else.

I’ll be using Help Me Investigate Education as a space to help them build that knowledge, and those connections, and to collaborate with journalism students and others across the UK. If you have a class that you want to get involved, I’d be happy to help.

And there are plenty of stories to be told. Like any transient population, students are subject to many abuses of power. In 2012 I want to see if, given the opportunity, student journalists can hold that power to account.

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.

Teaching online journalism: classes as a narrative

For the last few years, I’ve had a problem. It’s a problem with deadlines, and momentum. Here’s how it goes:

Every year, students in my undergraduate Online Journalism module run a live news website – Birmingham Recycled. Six weeks into the module, students have to submit a ‘snapshot’ portfolio for the first of 2 assignment deadlines…

And this is where I hit my problem. The standard of work in that first portfolio is typically impressive – most of them have gotten to grips with a range of online platforms, are understanding their area, and appear motivated.

But once they’ve submitted, students hit a lull. Their stellar performance until that point stalls – their momentum, interrupted by the deadline, falters.

In a nutshell, I think they enter a ‘business as usual’ frame of mind.

So this year I’m trying something new. Continue reading

When the lack of comments damages your news brand

If you want to skip the background, go to the next subheading

Last week the BBC Education website published a piece about a report into the use of technology by schoolchildren: “Tech addiction ‘harms learning'”:

“Technology addiction among young people is having a disruptive effect on their learning, researchers have warned,” the intro led, before describing the results of the study. No one other than the study authors was quoted.

But GP and Clinial Lecturer AnneMarie Cunningham, hearing of the report on Twitter, felt the headline and content of the article didn’t match up: “The headline suggests a causal relationship which a cross-sectional study could not establish, but the body of the text doesn’t really support any relationship between addiction and learning”, she wrote, and she started digging:

“It … was clear that none of the authors had an education background. The 2 main authors, Nadia and Andrew Kakabadse, have a blog showcasing their many interests but education doesn’t feature amongst them. They descibe themselves as “experts in top team and board consulting, training and development”.”

AnneMarie bought the report for $24.99 – the only way to read it – and started reading. This is what she found: Continue reading