Tag Archives: mps expenses

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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Review: Heather Brooke – The Silent State

The Silent State

In the week that a general election is called, Heather Brooke’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed. The Silent State is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work that pierces through the fog of the UK’s bureaucracies of power to show how they work, what is being hidden, and the inconsistencies underlying the way public money is spent.

Like her previous book, Your Right To Know, Brooke structures the book into chapters looking at different parts of the power system in the UK – making it a particularly usable reference work when you want to get your head around a particular aspect of our political systems.

Chapter by chapter

Chapter 1 lists the various databases that have been created to maintain information on citizens – paying particular focus to the little-publicised rack of databases holding subjective data on children. The story of how an old unpopular policy was rebranded to ride into existence on the back of the Victoria Climbie bandwagon is particularly illustrative of government’s hunger for data for data’s sake.

Picking up that thread further, Chapter 2 explores how much public money is spent on PR and how public servants are increasingly prevented from speaking directly to the media. It’s this trend which made The Times’ outing of police blogger Nightjack particularly loathsome and why we need to ensure we fight hard to protect those who provide an insight into their work on the ground.

Chapter 3 looks at how the misuse of statistics led to the independence of the head of the Office of National Statistics – but not the staff that he manages – and how the statistics given to the media can differ quite significantly to those provided when requested by a Select Committee (the lesson being that these can be useful sources to check). It’s a key chapter for anyone interested in the future of public data and data journalism.

Bureaucracy itself is the subject of the fourth chapter. Most of this is a plea for good bureaucracy and the end of unnamed sources, but there is still space for illustrative and useful anecdotes about acquiring information from the Ministry of Defence.

And in Chapter 5 we get a potted history of MySociety’s struggle to make politicians accountable for their votes, and an overview of how data gathered with public money – from The Royal Mail’s postcodes to Ordnance Survey – is sold back to the public at a monopolistic premium.

The justice system and the police are scrutinised in the 6th and 7th chapters – from the twisted logic that decreed audio recordings are more unreliable than written records to the criminalisation of complaint.

Then finally we end with a personal story in Chapter 8: a reflection on the MPs’ expenses saga that Brooke is best known for. You can understand the publishers – and indeed, many readers – wanting to read the story first-hand, but it’s also the least informative of all the chapters for journalists (which is a credit to all that Brooke has achieved on that front in wider society).

With a final ‘manifesto’ section Brooke summarises the main demands running across the book and leaves you ready to storm every institution in this country demanding change. It’s an experience reminiscent of finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial – we have just been taken on a tour through the faceless, logic-deprived halls of power. And it’s a disconcerting, disorientating feeling.

Journalism 2.0

But this is not fiction. It is great journalism. And the victims caught in expensive paper trails and logical dead ends are real people.

Because although the book is designed to be dipped in as a reference work, it is also written as an eminently readable page-turner – indeed, the page-turning gets faster as the reader gets angrier. Throughout, Brooke illustrates her findings with anecdotes that not only put a human face on the victims of bureaucracy, but also pass on the valuable experience of those who have managed to get results.

For that reason, the book is not a pessimistic or sensationalist piece of writing. There is hope – and the likes of Brooke, and MySociety, and others in this book are testament to the fact that this can be changed.

The Silent State is journalism 2.0 at its best – not just exposing injustice and waste, but providing a platform for others to hold power to account. It’s not content for content’s sake, but a tool. I strongly recommend not just buying it – but using it. Because there’s some serious work to be done.

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.