Tag Archives: MySociety

41 key moments in the history of online journalism {now 45} – have I missed any?

July 7 bombings image

A key moment in recent journalism history: Adam Stacey’s image taken during the July 7 bombings

In the history chapter of the Online Journalism Handbook you will find a timeline of key events in web journalism. While working on the forthcoming second edition I recently revisited and updated the timeline. Below are the 41 key events I have settled on — but have I missed any? Let me know what you think. Continue reading

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Data for journalists: understanding XML and RSS

If you are working with data chances are that sooner or later you will come across XML – or if you don’t, then, well, you should do. Really.

There are some very useful resources in XML format – and in RSS, which is based on XML – from ongoing feeds and static reference files to XML that is provided in response to a question that you ask. All of that is for future posts – this post attempts to explain how XML is relevant to journalism, and how it is made up.

What is XML?

XML is a language which is used for describing information, which makes it particularly relevant to journalists – especially when it comes to interrogating large sets of data.

If you wanted to know how many doctors were privately educated, or what the most common score was in the Premiership last season, or which documents were authored by a particular civil servant, then XML may be useful to you. Continue reading

Is Ice Cream Strawberry? Part 4: Human Capital

This is the fourth part of my inaugural lecture at City University London, ‘Is Ice Cream Strawberry?’. You can find part one here, part two here, and part three here.

Human capital

So here’s person number 4: Gary Becker, a Nobel prize-winning economist.

Fifty years ago he used the phrase ‘human capital’ to refer to the economic value that companies should ascribe to their employees.

These days, of course, it is common sense to invest time in recruiting, training and retaining good employees. But at the time employees were seen as a cost.

We need a similar change in the way we see our readers – not as a cost on our time but as a valuable part of our operations that we should invest in recruiting, developing and retaining. Continue reading

Open data meets FOI via some nifty automation

OpenlyLocal generated FOI request

Now this is an example of what’s possible with open data and some very clever thinking. Chris Taggart blogs about a new tool on his OpenlyLocal platform that allows you to send a Freedom of Information (FOI) request based on a particular item of spending. “This further lowers the barriers to armchair auditors wanting to understand where the money goes, and the request even includes all the usual ‘boilerplate’ to help avoid specious refusals.”

It takes around a minute to generate an FOI request.

The function is limited to items of spending above £10,000. Cleverly, it’s also all linked so you can see if an FOI request has already been generated and answered.

Although the tool sits on OpenlyLocalFrancis Irving at WhatDoTheyKnow gets enormous credit for making their side of the operation work with it.

Once again you have to ask why a media organisation isn’t creating these sorts of tools to help generate journalism beyond the walls of its newsroom.

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.

Parliamentary website TheyWorkForYou launches redesign

MySociety, the non-profit organisation led by Tom Steinberg, has redesigned their TheyWorkforYou.com website with data about UK Parliamentary politics.

The site provides easily accessible records of the UK Parliamentary process, and now contains data going back to 1935.

The immediate benefit for journalists is that the records going back this far are now far more accessible than previously. Previously, the archive data only went as far back as 2001. Continue reading

Letter to Govt. pt1: “The impact of newspaper closures on independent local journalism and access to local information”

The following is the first in a series of responses to the government inquiry into the future of local and regional media. We will be submitting the whole – along with blog comments – to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. This post, by Alex Lockwood, looks at the first:

“The impact of newspaper closures on independent local journalism and access to local information”

The final views of the committee will depend on how much the inquiry sees local newspapers responsible for local journalism – a little, a lot, or completely.

Writing in the Observer on Sunday, Henry Porter pretty much called them the same thing. For many who work there, the death of newspapers is disastrous for access to local information, not least due to the historical positions those papers have held.

The closures of the Glasgow East News and Ayrshire Extra, the Black Country Mail Extra, Wolverhampton AdNews, Daventry Post and Ashby Herald, the Lincoln Chronicle, the Northallerton, Thirsk and Bedale Times, and dozens of others that have either closed or felt the swingeing impact of mergers and office cuts, are devastating for their communities. These papers have been the homes for ‘hard’ journalism – reporting of the essential court and council stories that really matter to local lives.

Los Angeles Times reporter, Joe Matthews, quoted widely on this, has made clear the dire implications for democracy of the loss of quality journalism. Matthews wrote: “Much of the carnage of the ongoing media industry can’t be measured or seen: corruption undiscovered, events not witnessed, tips about problems that never reach anyone’s ears because those ears have left the newsroom.”

Those trained ears may have left the newsroom – but are they the only ears open to the whispers of local corruption? Continue reading