Pen and paper…

Thoughts, ideas, questions, experiences

Dipity experiments: Birmingham City of Culture 2013 bid May 11, 2010

Filed under: Online journalism — Kellie Maddox @ 11:24 am
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Been having a play with Dipity, as I’ve not used it before and wanted to see what it could do and how I could use it in my Online Journalism work.

I’ve tracked Birmingham’s bid to become the first UK City of Culture – adding events and developments from various sources including Birmingham Newsroom and Birmingham Big City Culture.

Until I can find a way to embed it properly – you can see the timeline on Dipity…..

Feel free to suggest other events I’ve missed or that would add to the piece : )


Mapping: giving it another go…. May 6, 2010

Filed under: Birmingham Recycled,Online journalism — Kellie Maddox @ 2:13 pm
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You may re-call my rather delayed attempts at mapping the emissions saved by flights being grounded at Birmingham Airport during the recent ‘ash cloud’. In my earlier post, I said:

As for UK figures, specifically Birmingham Airport – I’ve contacted the airport who said roughly 1600 flights were grounded over the 6 day period. I asked how this impacted aviation emissions figures but was told it’s something they’d have to look into with their environment department…….so its looking like Monday at the earliest!

The lady at Birmingham Airport did get back to me but only to say that they don’t keep such information because they’re not required to track emissions by law; although its something they will be introducing in the next 12 months. She said it would be quite difficult to work out because of variants like plane model type, length of flight, weight carried etc. So I pretty much laid the idea to rest….

Until yesterday’s session on data journalism with James Ball that is. I told James about the idea and he seemed to think it was worth pursuing. He said I would be able to work out a rough average based on the number of flights that would normally have flown out, the number of those that would have been short/long-haul and the approximate emissions of a ‘standard aircraft’.

So, I’ve gone back to Birmingham Airport and asked for exactly those figures….fingers crossed they a) get back to me and b) get back to me with some lovely numbers to crunch. I also asked about the number of flights affected by this week’s restrictions in Scotland and Ireland – so another mapping opportunity could be on the horizon there….

On a side note, I managed to find an Environmental Change Institute document which discusses the different methods used to calculate the carbon emissions of flights and compares them….so I guess this may come in handy when/if I do get some data to work with.


All things FOI and data journalism related….

Filed under: Online journalism — Kellie Maddox @ 11:35 am
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Top of yesterday’s ‘to-do’ list was not ‘attend a one-day session with the MA students on FOI and CAR (computer assisted reporting)’ but that’s actually what my day entailed. And I’m really glad I went now.

James Ball came to uni to spend the day with MA Online Journalism students talking about FOI and data journalism – two areas we have looked at in Online Journalism this semester. Having found it difficult to a) yet find something worth pursuing with an FOI request and b) work out what exactly to ask/avoid/point out/demand etc, I found James’ talk on the in’s and out’s of FOI really interesting and useful.

So – what did I learn from James?

  • There’s certain information you shouldn’t ask for
  • Names of people: some data will be given anonymously but senior civil service workers are identifiable by name as are directors od local organisations
  • In many cases – such as crime stats from the police – they will often give responses like “less than 3” or “less than 10” (their reasoning being that you could work out the identity of such few people therefore confidentiality is at risk)
  • That said – you can often identify people without the data so it undermines the argument anyway!

Two things to be aware when filing FOI requests, of according to James:

  1. Cost limits – the cost of someone dealing with an FOI request is  £25 per hour (so  for small organisations like councils 18 hours works out at £450). Organisations can only charge for ‘staff time’; they can’t charge for passing it between departments or up/down the ladder.
  • It’s harder to dispute cost on time grounds, but it is worth checking.
  • Think of FOI as a conversation – you can negotiate well to get the information you need most quicker. E.g. if you asked for 3 years worth of data across all ‘areas’, be flexible and ask what would make the process easier – less data, fewer areas etc

     2.   Commercial confidentiality – organisations should only use this reason for refusing FOI requests when an agreement has been signed in    connection with the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office). You should ask to see a copy of the agreement in such cases.

Other useful tips and hints:

  • Crowdsourcing FOI requests work nicely – make it easy for people to request FOI’s by giving sample letters/helpful pointers/FAQs to help them engage in the process
  • SPECIFY THE FORMAT you want the data to be in – if it’s in a PDF you can’t extract it easily to work with so make sure you specify Excel/Access or a tab delimited text file
  • FOI requests work best when you have a clearly defined topic and question
  • If the question you ask doesn’t match up with the organisation’s system – ask them to call you to work out how you can get the data you want
  • Ask for a few more numbers than you need
  • Send a test request when asking more than one company for data – attach a model answer to show exactly what you are looking for

All FOI’d out…..onto data journalism and CAR.

James said that data journalism was ‘catching on’ and was starting to get more attention; but he added that it’s still hard to pitch stories based on data. Although the word ‘data’ may instill the dread of reams and reams of boring numbers to crunch, James assured us that it can actually be fun and lots of quirky stuff can be found like a heat map of the cleanest and dirtiest restaurant in the area.

James’ tips for using data:

  • Learn some basic stats – it’s good to at least know some of the jargon (mean, median and mode) and identify the mistakes you are likely to make
  • Check to see if the dataset cuts off – if it does and you don’t realise you’ll only have calculated a proportion of the data so it will be inaccurate
  • If you interpret the data wrong, it’s your fault and you could be reported to the PCC for doing so
  • Learn how to spot anomalies in data and check them before you start working with them
  • Read up: Huff’s ‘How to lie with statistics’ and Gilovich’s  ‘How we know what isn’t so’ are good places to start

James then went on to talk about CAR and gave the example of the London Weekly investigation which he worked on with others. The ‘case’ itself is really interesting just because it seems totally crazy but the way in which James et al were able to investigate the story using tools such as Whois, wiki history and google maps shows how useful CAR can be in a situation where a company refuses to pick up the phone and ‘face the music’.

(See Roy Greenslade’s blog for the first edition commentary and contributions to the investigation via HelpMeInvestigate)

To round off the day, we then learnt a bit about Excel and the magical things it can do with data (fear not……it’s better than GCSE ICT let on). This included calculating averages, percentage differences, sorting data and creating pivot tables (which really are as fabulous as James claimed!).

And finally…James’ tips for Excel:

  • NEVER WORK ON THE ORIGINAL COPY – save a new one so if it goes wrong, you still have the original
  • Save spreadsheets before you sort – use a consistent labelling system e.g. by date, time or version number
  • Don’t use the ‘spangly and ever-so-attractive 3D charts’ – they make whatever’s closest look biggest
  • Go back and look at the ‘raw’ data and find stories worth chasing

All-in-all a great day, learned lots of new and useful stuff and hopefully I’ll remember it all when I come to do some *fancy* data stuff in the future….


Wordle fun… April 23, 2010

Filed under: Birmingham Recycled,Online journalism — Kellie Maddox @ 2:27 pm
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An interactive tool I thought I’d have a play with seeing as I haven’t before!

My blog as a Wordle:

Birmingham Recycled as a Wordle:

#ashtag as a Wordle:


Better late than never: a quick update….

To cut a long story short (sorry for the old cliché there) – my general absence here and elsewhere across the social media ‘waves’ over the last few weeks was because I was on work placement at a well-known Black Country radio station. But I will eventually blog about that whole experience – it is on the to-do list.

So I’m back – if not in mind but in general physical presence – and I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, especially on the Online Journalism front now we have the Birmingham Recycled Investigates team up and running. I did blog here before the Easter break about what we were up to but here’s a quick note about where I’m at:

  • Birmingham allotments and bees – published initial story about BCC changing their rules (updates to follow once council agrees new terms)
  • Trying to figure out and experiment with interactive tools to help support online work and offer alternatives for presenting data in text form (blog post on this to follow shortly)
  • Initial team idea to experiment with interactive tools such as Wordle, audio slideshows and mapping to represent how the recent airspace closure has impacted on the environment (focusing on Birmingham Airport’s CO2 emissions saved)

That last point is still something we’re working on, but obviously now the ban has passed, we’re conscious that it’s becoming less relevant. Hopefully, we’ll use the data we’ve got so far to do something even if it’s not what we originally wanted (again I will blog about this). So, that’s where I’m at and maybe by the end of the week – I’ll be back to normal…….whatever that is…..


Brumabilities: my contribution to Brum Twestival March 23, 2010

Filed under: Online journalism — Kellie Maddox @ 7:41 pm
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On Thursday, myself and a few friends will be popping along to Poppy Red in the Arcadian, Birmingham to join in this year’s Brum Twestival. So, I thought I’d read up on the whole ‘twestival’ thing as its my first and found that this year’s theme for the event is education.

The Brum Twestival team have come up with an idea called Brumabilities and have set up a blog for people to contribute short online guides on any subject they like, in the hope we can ‘educate’ each other about a whole host of topics.

Anyway, my contribution (as I’m yet to bring my equestrianism to the net) is this…


A guide to Grand Prix Dressage

Dressage – or ‘horse ballet’ for those not in the know – is basically a series of training exercises for horses and a competitive sport from novice to Olympic standard. It’s used to improve horses’ athleticism, flexibility and obedience but more than anything – it’s amazing to watch at Grand Prix level (the highest you can get!)

Here’s a 60 second guide to Grand Prix dressage movements, as demonstrated by the breath-taking Dutch combination Moorlands Totilas and Edward Gal at the 2009 Windsor European Championships.

Collected trot/canter The horses stride is shortened and more weight is carried on the hindquarters. It is not a slower pace – the stride is simply shorter and has more elevation.

Extended trot/canter The opposite of ‘collected’ – the stride is lengthened out and covers more ground without speeding up. (See Totalis’ amazing extended trot)

Half-pass The horse travels sideways and forwards at the same time looking in the direction of travel (e.g. left or right) – like moving diagonally from one corner to the opposite.

Passage A more ‘extreme’ version of collected trot but with even more collection and elevation! If you look at the video, it’s the bit where the horse looks like he’s pausing mid-air before putting each hoof down!

Piaffe Best described as trotting on the spot – think horses’ knees somewhere close to the ears!

One and two tempi flying changes Yes, it’s that complicated! Basically to the untrained eye it’s when the horse changes legs in canter every one or two strides, kind of like flying for a split-second!

Pirouette In true ballerina style, the horse canters on the spot whilst turning 360º on its hind legs. Impressed? You should be!


Social Media Workshop at BCU March 22, 2010

Today, a handful of us Online Journalism students popped along to the Social Media Workshop held at BCU – in association with new Media Talent Bank organisers Trinket Creative. We could only stay for the first hour because of lectures but managed to listen to Pete Ashton talking about social media, how he uses it, how other people use it and some ‘tips’ on how to use it for your own purposes.

Interesting ideas and thoughts he shared:

  • Numbers are irrelevant – its the quality that matters (re: tweets)
  • Splitting up your identity/having several online identities
  • Live-blogging/video has an authentic feel thats shows you what its actually like at the time
  • Social media as series of corridors
  • Be great at something and make sure people can get to ‘it’
  • ‘Performance conversation’ – find your voice and channel it through performance
  • ‘When everybody’s special, nobody’s special’ – just because you’re on Twitter doesn’t mean people will listen to you
  • ‘To be interesting you need to be interested’
  • ‘Don’t think of social media as a separate thing’ – use it within what you already use/do

His thoughts made me feel confident to go out and experiment with social media and get ‘interested’ in stuff but also made me feel (even more) like ‘a tiny fish in a big pond’ who no-one’s listening to! Oh well, sound advice from someone who actually ‘gets’ social media (well I think so anyway) and proof that it can work for whatever purpose you want it to. Onwards and upwards…