Pen and paper…

Thoughts, ideas, questions, experiences

All things FOI and data journalism related…. May 6, 2010

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….


A lesson in audio do’s and dont’s March 8, 2010

Filed under: Online journalism — Kellie Maddox @ 9:55 pm
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This week’s Online Journalism session was all about audio: when to use it, how to use, how to use it effectively, why would someone listen to it and so on.

After starting with the worrying instruction – ‘now close your eyes’ – we listened to the Guardian’s Media Talk podcast on BBC 6 Music and then discussed what elements it was made up of, what was good about it and how we could apply similar ideas to our own podcasts.

The Media Talk podcast starts with an ident, a brief run down of topics and some samples of audio from 6 Music and news broadcasts on the topic. Host Matt Wells then introduces both guests Maggie Brown and Paul Robinson, with a casual greeting, and then sums up the story of debate. Each guests offers their thoughts and opinions, which provide a nice contrast of views, prompted at various points by Matt. Several smaller topics of debate follow and then the podcast is round-up with a ‘fluffy’, light-hearted story and a pointer to the website and blog for further content.

A good example I thought and a format I think will work well for Birmingham Recycled, if we can get some local people involved who can offer their thoughts of some topical environmental issues.

As a group, we summarised podcasts:

  • Need colour and atmosphere
  • Can be in the form of a debate/discussion
  • Need compelling voices with something interesting to bring to the debate
  • Unedited material can work
  • Short and concise
  • Editing is important – add music, idents, jingle, chunk into sections

So, armed with a little know-how in the audio world, we then set about recording a small snippet of audio in our Birmingham Recycled teams….the result will follow!

If anyone knows of any other good examples of podcasts, please point them out and share your thoughts on formats that work for you in whatever context you use them.


Developing ideas for my hyperlocal project March 2, 2010

Filed under: Online journalism — Kellie Maddox @ 1:32 pm
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As outlined in my earlier post; I’m looking to set up a hyperlocal blog as part of my final year university project and the next stage in the planning process focused on ‘media enterprise’. Below is my response to what kind of enterprise would produce the blog, what my role in the project would be and other issues to consider:

I’m sticking with my original proposal idea which is:

To set up and run a hyperlocal news blog for my local area (Cannock Chase, WS12 and surrounding areas). I would like the blog to contain more than ‘news’ articles (which many sites already offer) and include audio interviews/observations (e.g. audio boo), photographs, short video packages and more social media connections.

I am confident, from the feedback received (see my blog), that this is a viable and challenging production project that will benefit me in my professional development and users of the news platform. In terms of the media enterprise needed to implement my idea; I feel that initially this will be an individual, self-starter ‘enterprise’ as many hyperlocal blogs are run by individuals or small groups that do not begin as commercial enterprises. Again, further research necessary.

I would say the main role within hyperlocal start-ups is a journalist (or non-journalist in some cases) who writes/produces/publishes content and communicates with local community groups/businesses/citizens about events/issues/concerns. Skills needed include writing copy, interviewing, audio recording and editing, possibly photography and general communication/organisation skills. I feel that I have the necessary skills to take on this central role described above, for my project, which is shown through my production work (particularly Online Journalism) and my work experience in print and radio.

As hyperlocal blogs are often non-commercial start-ups (to begin with at least), the enterprise/role I’m proposing could ‘really’ be set up and be an actual professional project. As I’m keen for this to be a mainly individual project (due to my location), I would organise and run the blog and make decisions based on my own experiences of online local news production. In the early stages of the project, I would aim to identify myself and my project to the local community (schools, churches, businesses, local council etc) and to encourage their participation in the blog.

Issues I will consider further include:

· The scale of the project (big enough to provide challenge but be able to maintain and produce myself) based mainly on geographical area covered

· The potential that I made need other contributions on a freelance basis such as photography (although for blog purposes, I’m confident I can take photos of sufficient quality)

· Commercial-viability – needed to sustain a hyperlocal project

Feedback from my tutor on developments:

What is really encouraging about your ideas is that you put research at the centre of your plans. Your initial research based on your knowledge of the sector initiated the idea and you seem to understand the type of enterprise that will be required to make it happen. You also show that the progression of the project will depend on experimentation and interaction with your audience and your “community”. You recognise a number of issues which will be influential to your project and you don’t jump to any rash conclusions about the possible solutions. This is mature and intelligent project planning.

(Thanks for the compliment!) Anyway, just thought I’d post it up to see if anyone has any thoughts or comments. Is there anything major I’m failing to consider? Does it seem feasible to start on my own and see where the project leads? Or am I being naive?


Thoughts on a hyperlocal project February 22, 2010

Filed under: Online journalism — Kellie Maddox @ 11:33 am
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As hinted by my earlier post about ‘hyperlocal’ being the way forward, I have started to think about provisions for local news platforms in my area. I’m interested in pursuing this idea as part of my final year university project and below is my initial (in it’s very infant stage) proposal:

I would like to set up and run a hyperlocal news blog for my local area (Cannock Chase, WS12 and surrounding areas). As a journalism student, this is the area of the market that, I have observed, is currently developing and proposing solutions to the decline in local newspapers and other ‘traditional’ media platforms.

From initial research carried out, I have found that there is a gap in the market for hyperlocal news platforms. The only other one in the area is a website which is part of a national franchise scheme AboutMyArea – this lacks any real interactive features, UGC etc – and is mainly written articles similar to newspaper content.

A hyperlocal news blog responds to changing market conditions (we have one free-sheet paper and its related web presence) and provides a valuable service to the local community, especially those who increasingly access information online. It appears that there is an audience for these blogs (see the Lichfield Blog and a recent interesting blog post on hyperlocal) and that communities are becoming more interactive and involved in community-based initiatives.

As a hyperlocal blog, there are fewer commercial issues to contend with – technically it’s ‘free’ to set up (just a host like WordPress) – but obviously there is potential for it to ‘become’ a commercial investment (with local advertising etc). The purpose/role of hyperlocal platforms means that they are less ‘I am the journalist-here is the news’ and more ‘what’s going on in your community – let’s discuss it’. I would like the blog to contain more than ‘news’ articles (which many sites already offer) and include audio interviews/observations (e.g. audio boo), photographs, short video packages and more social media connections.

I think this challenge will build on and use my core journalism skills and develop the skills I’m currently learning in Online Journalism (which covers blogging, microblogging, podcasting, audio material etc).

There are obviously further areas to research: area covered, target audience, funding/hosting etc but this is my initial idea.

The following is some early feedback on my proposal from my tutor Sue Heseltine:

There are some excellent ideas here that are based on good research and it is clear that you have already begin to think through some of the issues involved. You also show some genuine understanding of how a hyperlocal blog might provide an alternative but more interactive and community-based type of service compared to the local newspapers. You also correctly identify potential areas for further research and – like all hyperlocal blogs – the issue of making it pay will be one you will have to consider. Definitely an idea worth pursuing, though.
So at least I feel as though it’s definitely an idea worth pursuing. Some other hyperlocal projects making their mark and offering inspiration include Stafford Direct, the Tamworth Blog, HashBrum and Capture Cardiff.
Diana Smith, who runs Stafford Direct, offered me some encouraging but realistic advice:
We really need good journalists. I have plenty of stories to tell!
[It’s] hard going. Will help if there are more.need to network and involve media
There’s a lot more research to do and things to consider but already I’m excited and motivated by the idea of contributing to a valuable local service and encouraging communities to contribute to a positive local asset.
Any ideas, thoughts, advice or examples of other hyperlocal projects are very welcomed. I’m interested to see how these projects begin and what the most challenging aspects of such projects are. Any words of wisdom? Are hyperlocal sites as rewarding for journalist and community alike as they seem?

Networking in Birmingham February 19, 2010

Filed under: Birmingham Recycled,Online journalism — Kellie Maddox @ 11:21 am
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As part of today’s Birmingham Social Media Treasure Hunt (#bsmth), I’m aiming to expand my network of contacts within Birmingham to help with my Online Journalism work and my work for Birmingham Recycled.

I’m hoping people will help direct me into the paths of useful Birmingham bloggers, social media users, environmental groups, online journalists etc to help me in my new role as recycling reporter! First stop, Pete Ashton…

I’ve tweeted Pete….awaiting reply. Will update with any developments!