Tag Archives: heather brooke

Beyond Spotlight: 6 more data journalism projects that influenced policy

spotlight data journalism

Brian d’Arcy James plays data journalist Matt Carroll in the movie Spotlight

Spotlight won an Oscar for its portrayal of the Boston Globe’s investigation into institutional silence over child abuse, including some old school data journalism by Matt Carroll. But it’s far from the only example of data journalism shaping policy: Anna Noble asked members of the NICAR-L computer assisted reporting forum for five of their own examples (first published here).
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Unicorns, racehorses – and a mule cameo: data journalism in 2014

unicorn animated gif

Recently it has felt like data journalism might finally be taking a step forward after years spent treading water. I’ve long said that the term ‘data journalism’ was too generic for work that includes practices as diverse as scraping, data visualisation, web interactives, and FOI. But now, in 2014, it feels like different practitioners are starting to find their own identity.

It starts with the unicorn. Continue reading

7 laws journalists now need to know – from database rights to hate speech

Law books image by Mr T in DC

Image by Mr T in DC

When you start publishing online you move from the well-thumbed areas of defamation and libel, contempt of court and privilege and privacy to a whole new world of laws and licences.

This is a place where laws you never knew existed can be applied to your work – while other ones can come in surprisingly useful. Here are the key ones:

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Video: Heather Brooke’s tips on investigating, and using the FOI and Data Protection Acts

The following 3 videos first appeared on the Help Me Investigate blog, Help Me Investigate: Health and Help Me Investigate: Welfare. I thought I’d collect them together here too. As always, these are published under a Creative Commons licence, so you are welcome to re-use, edit and combine with other video, with attribution (and a link!).

First, Heather Brooke’s tips for starting to investigate public bodies:

Her advice on investigating health, welfare and crime:

And on using the Data Protection Act:

2 guest posts: 2012 predictions and “Social media and the evolution of the fourth estate”

Memeburn logo

I’ve written a couple of guest posts for Nieman Journalism Lab and the tech news site Memeburn. The Nieman post is part of a series looking forward to 2012. I’m never a fan of futurology so I’ve cheated a little and talked about developments already in progress: new interface conventions in news websites; the rise of collaboration; and the skilling up of journalists in data.

Memeburn asked me a few months ago to write about social media’s impact on journalism’s role as the Fourth Estate, and it took me until this month to find the time to do so. Here’s the salient passage:

“But the power of the former audience is a power that needs to be held to account too, and the rise of liveblogging is teaching reporters how to do that: reacting not just to events on the ground, but the reporting of those events by the people taking part: demonstrators and police, parents and politicians all publishing their own version of events — leaving journalists to go beyond documenting what is happening, and instead confirming or debunking the rumours surrounding that.

“So the role of journalist is moving away from that of gatekeeper and — as Axel Bruns argues — towards that of gatewatcher: amplifying the voices that need to be heard, factchecking the MPs whose blogs are 70% fiction or the Facebook users scaremongering about paedophiles.

“But while we are still adapting to this power shift, we should also recognise that that power is still being fiercely fought-over. Old laws are being used in new waysnew laws are being proposed to reaffirm previous relationships. Some of these may benefit journalists — but ultimately not journalism, nor its fourth estate role. The journalists most keenly aware of this — Heather Brooke in her pursuit of freedom of information; Charles Arthur in his campaign to ‘Free Our Data’ — recognise that journalists’ biggest role as part of the fourth estate may well be to ensure that everyone has access to information that is of public interest, that we are free to discuss it and what it means, and that — in the words of Eric S. Raymond — “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow“.”

Comments, as always, very welcome.

Crowdsourcing investigative journalism: a case study (part 3)

Continuing the serialisation of the research underpinning a new Help Me Investigate project, in this third part I describe how the focus of the site was shaped by the interests of its users and staff, and how site functionality was changed to react to user needs. I also identify some areas where the site could have been further developed and improved. (Part 1 is available here; Part 2 is here)

Reflections on the proof of concept phase

By the end of the 12 week proof of concept phase the site had also completed a number of investigations that were not ‘headline-makers’ but fulfilled the objective of informing users: in particular ‘Why is a new bus company allowed on an existing route with same number, but higher prices?’; ‘What is the tracking process for petitions handed in to Birmingham City Council?’ and ‘The DVLA and misrepresented number plates’

The site had also unearthed some promising information that could provide the basis for more stories, such as Birmingham City Council receiving over £160,000 in payments for vehicle removals; and ‘Which councils in the UK (that use Civil Enforcement) make the most from parking tickets?’ (as a byproduct, this also unearthed how well different councils responded to Freedom of Information requests#)

A number of news organisations expressed an interest in working with the site, but practical contributions to the site took place largely at an individual rather than organisational level. Journalist Tom Scotney, who was involved in one of the investigations, commented: “Get it right and you’re becoming part of an investigative team that’s bigger, more diverse and more skilled than any newsroom could ever be” (Scotney, 2009, n.p.) – but it was becoming clear that most journalists were not culturally prepared – or had the time – to engage with the site unless there was a story ‘ready made’ for them to use. Once there were stories to be had, however, they contributed a valuable role in writing those stories up, obtaining official reactions, and spreading visibility.

After 12 weeks the site had around 275 users (whose backgrounds ranged from journalism and web development to locally active citizens) and 71 investigations, exceeding project targets. It is difficult to measure ‘success’ or ‘failure’ but at least eight investigations had resulted in coherent stories, representing a success rate of at least 11%: the target figure before launch had been 1-5%. That figure rose to around 21% if other promising investigations were included, and the sample included recently initiated investigations which were yet to get off the ground.

‘Success’ was an interesting metric which deserves further elaboration. In his reflection on The Guardian’s crowdsourcing experiment, for example, developer Martin Belam (2011a, n.p.) noted a tendency to evaluate success “not purely editorially, but with a technology mindset in terms of the ‘100% – Achievement unlocked!’ games mechanic.”. In other words, success might be measured in terms of degrees of ‘completion’ rather than results.

In contrast, the newspaper’s journalist Paul Lewis saw success in terms of something other than pure percentages: getting 27,000 people to look at expense claims was, he felt, a successful outcome, regardless of the percentage of claims that those represented. And BBC Special Reports Editor Bella Hurrell – who oversaw a similar but less ambitious crowdsourcing project on the same subject on the broadcaster’s website, felt that they had also succeeded in genuine ‘public service journalism’ in the process (personal interview).

A third measure of success is noted by Belam – that of implementation and iteration (being able to improve the service based on how it is used):

“It demonstrated that as a team our tech guys could, in the space of around a week, get an application deployed into the cloud but appear integrated into our site, using a technology stack that was not our regular infrastructure.

“Secondly, it showed that as a business we could bring people together from editorial, design, technology and QA to deliver a rapid turnaround project in a multi-disciplinary way, based on a topical news story.

“And thirdly, we learned from and improved upon it.“ (Belam, 2010, n.p.)

A percentage ‘success’ rate of Help Me Investigate, then, represents a similar, ‘game-oriented’ perspective on the site, and it is important to draw on other frameworks to measure its success.

For example, it was clear that the site did very well in producing raw material for ‘journalism’, but it was less successful in generating more general civic information such as how to find out who owned a piece of land. Returning to the ideas of Actor-Network Theory outlined above, the behaviour of two principal actors – and one investigation – had a particular influence on this, and how the site more generally developed over time. Site user Neil Houston was an early adopter of the site and one of its heaviest contributors. His interest in interrogating data helped shape the path of many of the site’s most active investigations, which in turn set the editorial ‘tone’ of the site. This attracted users with similar interests to Neil, but may have discouraged others who did not – further research would be needed to establish this.

Likewise, while Birmingham City Council staff contributed to the site in its earliest days, when the council became the subject of an investigation staff’s involvement was actively discouraged (personal interview with contributor). This left the site short of particular expertise in answering civic questions.

At least one user commented that the site was very ‘FOI [Freedom Of Information request]-heavy’ and risked excluding users interested in different types of investigations, or who saw Freedom of Information requests as too difficult for them. This could be traced directly to the appointment of Heather Brooke as the site’s support journalist. Heather is a leading Freedom of Information activist and user of FOI requests: this was an enormous strength in supporting relevant investigations but it should also be recognised how that served to set the editorial tone of the site.

This narrowing of tone was addressed by bringing in a second support journalist with a consumer background: Colin Meek. There was also a strategic shift in community management which involved actively involving users with other investigations. As more users came onto the site these broadened into consumer, property and legal areas.

However, a further ‘actor’ then came into play: the legal and insurance systems. Due to the end of proof of concept funding and the associated legal insurance the team had to close investigations unrelated to the public sector as they left the site most vulnerable legally.

A final example of Actor-Network Theory in action was a difference between the intentions of the site designers and its users. The founders wanted Help Me Investigate to be a place for consensus, not discussion, but it was quickly apparent users did not want to have to go elsewhere to have their discussions. Users needed to – and did – have conversations around the updates that they posted.

The initial challenge-and-result model (breaking investigations down into challenges with entry fields for the subsequent results, which were required to include a link to the source of their information) was therefore changed very early on to challenge-and-update: people could now update without a link, simply to make a point about a previous result, or to explain their efforts in failing to obtain a result.

One of the challenges least likely to be accepted by users was to ‘Write the story up’. It seemed that those who knew the investigation had no need to write it up: the story existed in their heads. Instead it was either site staff or professional journalists who would normally write up the results. Similarly, when an investigation was complete, it required site staff to update the investigation description to include a link to any write-up. There was no evidence of a desire from users to ‘be a journalist’. Indeed, the overriding objective appeared rather to ‘be a citizen’.

In contrast, a challenge to write ‘the story so far’ seemed more appealing in investigations that had gathered data but no resolution as yet. The site founders underestimated the need for narrative in designing a site that allowed users to join investigations while they were in progress.

As was to be expected with a ‘proof of concept’ site (one testing whether an idea could work), there were a number of areas of frustration in the limitations of the site – and identification of areas of opportunity. When looking to crowdfund small amounts for an investigation, for example, there were no third party tools available that would allow this without going through a nonprofit organisation. And when an investigation involved a large crowdsourcing operation the connection to activity conducted on other platforms needed to be stronger so users could more easily see what needed doing (e.g. a live feed of changes to a Google spreadsheet, or documents bookmarked using Delicious).

Finally investigations often evolved into new questions but had to stay with an old title or risk losing the team and resources that had been built up. The option to ‘export’ an investigation team and resources into a fresh question/investigation was one possible future solution.

‘Failure for free’ was part of the design of the site in order to allow investigations to succeed on the efforts of its members rather than as a result of any top-down editorial agenda – although naturally journalist users would concentrate their efforts on the most newsworthy investigations. In practice it was hard to ‘let failure happen’, especially when almost all investigations had some public interest value.

Although the failure itself was not an issue (and indeed the failure rate lower than expected), a ‘safety net’ was needed that would more proactively suggest ways investigators could make their investigation a success, including features such as investigation ‘mentors’ who could pass on their experience; ‘expiry dates’ on challenges with reminders; improved ability to find other investigators with relevant skills or experience; a ‘sandbox’ investigation for new users to find their feet; and developing a metric to identify successful and failing investigations.

Communication was central to successful investigations and two areas required more attention: staff time in pursuing communication with users; and technical infrastructure to automate and facilitate communication (such as alerts to new updates or the ability to mail all investigation members)

The much-feared legal issues threatened by the site did not particularly materialise. Out of over 70 investigations in the first 12 weeks, only four needed rephrasing to avoid being potentially libellous. Two involved minor tweaks; the other two were more significant, partly because of a related need for clarity in the question.

Individual updates within investigations, which were post-moderated, presented even less of a legal problem. Only two updates were referred for legal advice, and only one of those rephrased. One was flagged and removed because it was ‘flamey’ and did not contribute to the investigation.

There was a lack of involvement by users across investigations. Users tended to stick to their own investigation and the idea of ‘helping another so they help you’ did not take root. Further research is needed to see if there was a power law distribution at work here – often seen on the internet – of a few people being involved in lots of investigations, most being involved in one, and a steep upward curve between.

In the next part I look at one particular investigation in an attempt to identify the qualities that made it successful.

If you want to get involved in the latest Help Me Investigate project, get in touch on paul@helpmeinvestigate.com

Why we need open courts data – and newspapers need to improve too

Justice

Justice photo by mira66

Few things sum up the division of the UK around the riots like the sentencing of those involved. Some think courts are too lenient, while others gape at six month sentences for people who stole a bottle of water.

These judgments are often made on the basis of a single case, rather than any overall view. And you might think, in such a situation, that a journalist’s role would be to find out just how harsh or lenient sentencing has been – not just across the 1,600 or more people who have been arrested during the riots, but also in comparison to previous civil disturbances – or indeed, to similar crimes outside of a riot situation.

As Martin Belam argues:

“Really good data journalism will help us untangle the truth from those prejudiced assumptions. But this is data journalism that needs to stay the course, and seems like an ideal opportunity to do “long-form data journalism”. How long will these looters serve? What is the ethnic make-up and age range of those convicted? How many other criminals will get an early release because our jails are newly full of looters? How many people convicted this week will go on to re-offend?”

And yet, amazingly, we cannot reliably answer these questions – because it is still not possible to get raw data on sentencing in UK courts, not even through FOI. Continue reading