Tag Archives: expenses

Mistakes in the Big (and small) Media: Quality in Reporting

It is always fun when a hoaxed piece of research gets past all the filters and makes the newspapers, but what does it teach us? This is a video report from the Hungry Beast team in Australia, “proving” which part of Australia is the most gullible. The answer is, apparently, “the media”.

Link, in case the video doesn’t embed properly.

Here’s a different example from last week: Andrew Lansley’s insurance of a painting and medal on his Expenses as an MP.

All the papers quoted a value of 3500 ukp, except for the Independent which quoted a *premium* of 3500 ukp. Continue reading

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Telegraph plans to expand MPs database site in build up to election (Q&A)

I asked Tim Rowell, Digital Publisher at Telegraph.co.uk 3 questions about how they dealt with the MPs expenses story online. The main headline is that the new domain hosting the expenses database – parliament.telegraph.co.uk -will expand in the run-up to the next election along with the MP expenses database itself.

There are also curious “legal reasons” given for disabling the embed/email option on the PDFs. I’m pushing on that because I don’t see how publication on your site is different from allowing someone to embed it on their own, or email it. If you have any insight on that, let me know. [See response below]

Here are the responses in full:

When the team was going through the expenses and reporting, how was this longer term online strategy incorporated?

From day one, it was agreed that we would work towards the publication of an online database that contained not only the files themselves but also an aggregation of publicly available data (Parliament Parser, They Work for You, Register of Members Interests etc.) with our own unique data analysis.

The publication by Parliament last week of the redacted files has provided a glimpse into the scale of operation required to analyse such a volume of documentation but one has to realise that the full files contain many, many more pages.

The launch yesterday of the database is the first phase. We will, in due course, publish the full uncensored files for all 646 MPs. Crucially, the expenses investigative team of reporters spent a week aggregating and processing the data (the unique 2007/8 analysis of the Additional Costs Allowance) themselves. Integration in action again! The end result of that work is the first accurate breakdown of those ACA figures. We soon realised that this data provided a great basis upon which to build the Complete Expenses Files supplement in last Saturday’s newspaper.

Why Issuu? And why is the ’email/embed’ option disabled for “secret documents”?

“Secret documents’ is not our term, it is Issuu’s. We think Issuu is a great product and that it provides a fantastic user experience and have plans to use it more extensively. But for legal reasons we need to be sure that the document cannot be downloaded. By disabling the download function, Issuu automatically restricts email/embed.

[further to that:]  How is publication on your site different from allowing someone to embed it on their own, or emailing it?

It is a precautionary measure. In the unlikely event that one of the source documents puts at risk the identity of a supplier or the full postcode of an MP we need to be confident that a) we can amend that file immediately and b) that the file has not been distributed more widely. For that reason, we do not want the files to be downloadable. We’d be very happy for other to embed the files in their pages but if you restrict the download option in Issuu you restrict the ability to embed.

Am I right in thinking the pages on each MP are static and so indexable by search engines, even though they’re generated from a database?

Yes. You may also notice that it is on a new domain parliament.telegraph.co.uk. We will be enhancing our political resources over the coming months as we build up to the General Election. This application is not just for the Expenses files, we have plans to develop this area into a full service that enables our users to engage more closely with the democratic process.

MPs expenses data: now it’s The Telegraph’s turn

The Telegraph have finally published their MPs’ expenses data online – and it’s worth the wait. Here are some initial thoughts and reactions:

  • Firstly, they’ve made user behaviour an editorial feature. In plain English: they’re showing the most searched-for MPs and constituencies, which is not only potentially interesting in itself, but also makes it easier for the majority of users who are making those searches (i.e. they can access it with a click rather than by typing)
  • There’s also a table for most expensive MPs. As this is going to remain static, it would be good to see a dedicated page with more information – in the same way the paper did in its weekend supplement.
  • The results page for a particular MP has a search engine-friendly URL. Very often, database-generated pages have poor search engine optimisation, partly because the URLs are full of digits and symbols, and partly because they are dynamically generated. This appears to avoid both problems – the URL for the second home allowance of Khalid Mahmood MP, for example, is http://parliament.telegraph.co.uk/mpsexpenses/second-home/Khalid-Mahmood/mp-11087
  • The uncensored expenses files themselves are embedded using Issuu. This seems a strange choice as it doesn’t allow users to tag or comment – and the email/embed option is disabled for “secret documents”
  • There’s some nice subtle animation on the second home part of expenses, and clear visualisation on other parts.
  • The MP Details page is intelligently related both to the Telegraph site (related articles) and the wider web, with the facility to easily email that MP, go to their Wikipedia entry, and ‘bookmark’.
  • Joy of joys, you can also download the MPs expenses spreadsheet from here (on Google Docs) – although this is for all MPs rather than the one being viewed. Curiously, while viewing you can see who else is viewing and even (as I did) attempt to chat (no, they didn’t chat back).

I’ll most likely update this post later as I get some details from behind the curtain.

And there are more general thoughts around the online treatment of expenses generally which I’ll try to blog at another point.

Meanwhile, A.nnotate puts all MPs expense PDFs online for free annotation

On the day that Parliament released MPs’ expenses in their ‘official’ form, I was hawking around on Twitter trying to find a good way to crowdsource analysis of the documents (this was before The Guardian’s crowdsourcing tool went live).

Central to the problem was that the expenses were presented in search-unfriendly PDFs. So I was looking for a place people could upload those PDFs and post comments, tag and annotate them.

Scribd was the obvious option: you can comment and tag – but not annotate. After a number of responses on Twitter (in particular Jen Michaels’ suggestions and Marcelo Soares, who had converted Brazilian parliamentary salaries from PDF to Excel with Able2Extract), I had one from Fred Howell of A.nnotate.

A.nnotate was indeed an ideal candidate – however, the website charges for use, which made it redundant for crowdsourcing purposes. But I was feeling cheeky…

“Perhaps you could let users do #mpexpenses for free as a great bit of PR?” I asked.

Fred saw the potential. Within a couple of hours he had twittered back:

“Put a list of all #mpexpenses pdfs for free shared online annotation at : http://a.nnotate.com/beta/mpexpenses/

So credit to Fred – and the power of Twitter. Had The Guardian not created their tool, we had hacked together our own platform within hours – and there lies lesson #1: the power of the web to enable people to mobilise very quickly. It also brought to mind something I said to a group of people at an event the same day: don’t obsess with the tools – the networks are more important: because through the networks you should be able to find someone who knows the tools, or how to use them.

The Guardian meant Fred’s efforts were – this week – to no avail. But in the longer term, I know who to turn to if I need a bunch of PDFs annotated – as will anyone else who saw those tweets. And anyone reading this blog post will know about A.nnotate too. So there is lesson #2: it wasn’t the PR of ‘delivering a message’ but simply ‘doing a good turn’, which in social media is the best PR there is.

But I still wish there was a free online PDF upload service that did annotation.

The Guardian’s tool to crowdsource MPs’ expenses data: time to play

So here’s The Guardian’s crowdsourcing tool for MPs’ expenses. If you’ve not already, you should have a play: it’s a dream. There are over 77,000 documents to get through – and in less than 24 hours users have gone through over 50,000 of those. You wonder how long it took The Telegraph to get that far.

Meanwhile, that process is doing much more than just finding ‘stories’. It’s generating data: the date, the amount, the type of expense, the type of document. When this stage is finished, The Guardian will have a database that will allow people to filter, mix and combine the expenses data in different ways.

It’s also about telling a ‘story’ in a different way. There’s an element of game mechanics in the site – that progress bar (shown above) compels you to bring the site to completion (it strangely reminds me of the Twitter game Spymaster). This makes it more engaging than a made-for-print exclusive – as I wrote about Help Me Investigate, this isn’t ‘citizen journalism’: it’s micro-volunteering. And when you volunteer, you tend to engage.

And when you treat news as a platform rather than a destination, then people tend to spend more time on your site, so there’s an advertising win there.

Finally, we may see more stories, we may see interesting mashups, and this will give The Guardian an edge over the newspaper that bought the unredacted data – The Telegraph. When – or if – they release their data online, you can only hope the two sets of data will be easy to merge.