My thoughts on #CJ15: What next for community journalism?

Yesterday I spent a packed but interesting day at Cardiff Uni for the Centre for Community Journalism’s What next for community journalism conference. I was there to offer a quick overview of the Media Mill project I’m researcher on (my presentation is online). It was a fascinating day with lots to mull over and I wanted to share a few thoughts and observations:

  • Investigative journalism is alive and well: There were some really inspiring examples of passionate and committed local storytelling that any investigative journalist would be proud of. Take a look at The Bristol Cable and for example.
  • Hyperlocal’s don’t know what they are: A clear message for me is that hyperlocal community is a broad church and there isn’t one clear thread that you could pull out that would define hyperlocal.  It also strikes me that a number of ‘hyperlocals’ in the room didn’t really seem to be bothered by that – they do what they do. It seems more an issue for those who want to represent them.  Efforts to map the sector have simply highlighted the issue. I think there’s some great scope in the map to be able to ask some questions about the capacity of the sector – I think that ‘parish pump’ newsletters, which might be seen as nothing more than notice boards, could be called in to ‘active’ journalistic service if a local issue demands it. (later: John Hickman makes a good point about how inclusive the term hyperlocal is in this context) 
  • The BBC is not the Media: The various BBC announcements made earlier in the week didn’t get much play in the room. I’m not sure if that’s because there weren’t many open forums (not a bad thing) or because people didn’t really care. But those ‘advocating on behalf of hyperlocals’ like Nesta and the CCJ seemed quite exorcised by the BBC. One of the keynotes of the day was from Damien Radcliffe, showcasing the Where are we know report . (and here) Its a good report, but I was struck by the way that the BBC and commercial media were treated differently when it came to what they need to do to support hyperlocal. You might say ‘but they are!’, except that I think what’s being asked of them is the same – ‘give us some of your money’.  
  • The BBC is not the competition:  Given the general conversation around the commercial and ideological motivations around hyperlocals its pretty clear that for some in the room, particularly those with a more liberal market reform view, that the BBC is an easy target.  Of course the biggest threat is the regional newspaper industry but you can’t lobby them! It was also interesting to see Facebook get a poking from Dan Glimor (who played the libertarian in the room  more than once) by suggesting that Facebook wanted to be like electricity (in it’s fundamental utility) which was fine by him as it invited regulation. It got a big laugh and a good deal of sympathy but I get the sense that, beyond the political, given their scale, for most hyperlocals Facebook is more like a passing supertanker rather than the indiscriminate steam roller many in the mainstream media think it is.
  • There is no single, viable, transferable business model for hyperlocal: There are hyperlocals that make money, those that don’t. They do it through ads, some don’t. The reality is, that the diversity of the sector means there is no clear way for them to make money (if that’s what they want to do).
  • There is no such thing as a level playing field: I heard the term ‘we need a level playing field’ a lot, especially in the debate around where money for support should come from. I hate the term because it really means ‘get off my grass’. The truth is that the media ‘field’ is like a big bubble. ‘level’ one bit and all that happens is the other gets distorted. Leveling a playing field doesn’t just mean lowering the field to a level (often a lowest common denominator) , it means the players need to raise their game. The price of that is often a compromise between the motivation and the practice for a hyperlocal site. Which brings me to my last point…
  • Ethics and Law are BIG weak spots: I saw some, frankly, unethical practices in some of the journalism on display – good journalism with great impact but there could be some really serious trust issues if not legal issues. (later: Judith Townend noted in a comment below that her research has suggested that law is a bit of an issue in general). There was also a really revealing debate about the value of signing up to a press regulator called the Impress Project –  a kind of independent re-imagining of the press complaints commission, right down to asking the editors code of conduct (which very few people had heard of). Some in the room didn’t like the idea of any regulation – a strong anti-establishment vein or that liberal market view raising its head again. But for me, ethics and regulation is not an ideological issue – its a commercial and editorial reality. It’s also an issue of trust. Getting called out for your ethics is one thing. Having that picked over in court is another.  If nothing else, the debate around what constituted a ‘relevant publisher’ would be enough to convince me to stump up the 50 quid to join; I can only imagine what that would cost if it was lawyers arguing that when an aggrieved reader took you to court!

All in all it was a fascinating day with some really passionate and inspirational stories to tell. I really appreciate CCJ and Nesta pulling it all together and asking me along.

There’s some really good and thoughtful round-ups by Russel Todd over at independenttropicalwalesRichard Jones  Miljenko Williams,  John Hickman and Dave Harte

Email in a social media world

A little observation I wanted to share. Over the summer I went away for a few weeks and put my out-of-office message on.  At the same time I had a few students emailing me questions about assignments and I was surprised that some of them replied to my out-of-office as if it was a real email. It made me think about norms of communication.

Out of office messages are a common part of my working life – not much of anything gets done without email! But I know that email isn’t the main form of communication for my students. It’s conversation that is the norm. So it shouldn’t really be a surprise that any response is seen as a ‘live’ response.  That’s underlined by the number of emails that have no title or any of the usual ‘dear andy’ or ‘hi’ that you’d expect. They are the next line in an asynchronous conversation. In future, I know I’ll have to make it clearer that an out-of-office is an automated response not a status update.

Let’s be clear. I don’t think that’s a ‘problem’ with students not getting email or somehow not being good communicators. It just underlined for me that there is no normal any more.

There needs to be communication between me and the students but I don’t want to dictate what form it should take. At the same time, I can’t change some of what I do. We need to meet somewhere in the middle, but the landscape moves so fast finding a middle-ground feels more challenging.

Advice to journalism students for being online.

Its getting to that point in the academic calendar where I’m writing documentation for the modules I’ll be teaching this year. Looking back over previous years, I’ve noticed how bits of information appear and disappear in the guidance notes I write; notes about certain types of kit have been replaced with general advice about phones; Reading lists become increasingly digital.

But in all of the changes, and beyond the standard academic boilerplate, there are some elements that have stayed the same. One is a section called ‘guidance on blogging’. I started including it nearly 10 years ago and I based it on the ethics guide put forward by Suzanne Stefanac in  her book Dispatches from Blogistan: A Travel Guide for the Modern Blogger:

Be fair:

  • Acknowledge any personal bias or influence
  • Clearly distinguish opinion from fact
  • Research all facts thoroughly and honestly
  • Never mislead or misrepresent
  • Be transparent
  • Never plagiarise.

Be Accountable:

  • Identify and link to sources whenever possible
  • Invite feedback and respond to it
  • Admit mistakes promptly and publicly
  • Be courageous when holding those in power accountable
  • Avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest

Minimise harm:

  • Avoid pandering and sensationalism
  • Recognise that private individuals have a greater right to an expectation of privacy than public officials or those who court power, influence or public attention
  • Practice discretion when writing about those who may be adversely affected by blog coverage.
  • Recognise common standards of decency
  • Seek approval for content distribution of any material which is not your own

Sometimes it feels like we spend an increasing amount of time thinking about how to ‘do’ and less on how to ‘be’ online.  So it’s nice to reflect that even when the form changes, the basic approach can still stand.

I know that blogging is fast becoming a bit of a legacy concept, which I think is a real shame; I still think a blog is about the space to say why you think something in a world of people saying what they think in 140 chars or less.  But the sidelining of the concept doesn’t undermine the usefulness of  Stefenac’s advice. So I’m going to keep it in. Relevance might dictate that I  replace blogging and blog with publishing and publish, but they still work for me as a guide for being online.

Media Mill: Open data newsletter and slides

You may have noticed that I’ve been posting about Open Data a lot recently. It’s mainly because of a project that I’m working on as a researcher called Media Mill.  One of the things I’ve been doing is pushing out a weekly email newsletter to the project members with related open data, hyperlocal type stuff.  The project focus means the content is not as broad as some open data newsletters so I’ve not pushed it to a wider audience;  It’s never been private, more under the radar.


But it’s always open to new subscribers and now that it’s on it’s 15th one I thought I’d let people know about it.  You can see the archive online and subscribe if you like the look of it.  It’s out every Wednesday at 11:30ish. Feedback always welcome.

Open Data Presentation.

Northern Lightsinson  nlnetworking http htVoxJaltS

As part of the general conversation around open data, I hear a lot about innovation by SME’s (small to medium size enterprises) – companies building their business on or with open data. I’ve been pondering whether the knowledge of open data amongst SME’s is up to making good on that promise. So I gatecrashed a networking event by the universitie’s Northern Lights project (thanks folks).  I did a quick presentation about what open data was and why people thought SME’s should be interested.

It wasn’t evangelising or trying to sell the idea of open data. I wanted to ask them if they knew about open data and if they thought it might be for them (hence the slightly crass show me the money bit which was more impact than money). I asked if they’d do a little questionnaire for me and given that Northern lights have over 500 businesses on their books I’m hoping for an interesting overview of SME attitudes to open data. I’ll share when I have more. In the meantime, heres my slides from the event, you can also get them in an editable form over at canva. They are CC0 and if I’ve missed any attributions set me straight.

I also made a handout (excuse the risible design skills)


How open is Data Journalism?

Where does data journalism get its data?

  1. In a brown envelope or mysterious memory stick
  2. From freedom of information requests
  3. From free (open) government data sources
  4. Some will collect their own via the crowd

It’s the brown envelope stories that invariably get the headlines (and the data-J love) and, although I think it gets the best bang for it’s money, there aren’t that many doing the collection from the crowd one that well. A look at majority of stories that ‘use’ data shows that it’s FOI that does the heavy lifting.  But when you look beyond the text at infographics, interactive and visual data journalism it’s open government data that provides the backbeat to most data driven content.

In the UK, the ONS are the mainstay of much of the casual data journalism you see out their. Data from the census for example, underpins a good deal of the comparative work of data journalism. The food standards agency hygiene ratings do a roaring trade in local newspapers.  What’s surprising is how little of the data, and the subsequent data developed from it is shared, let alone open.

The open government licence (OGL), which covers much of the open government data out there doesn’t require anything other than you:

acknowledge the source of the Information in your product or application by including or linking to any attribution statement specified by the Information Provider(s) and, where possible, provide a link to this licence;

Data from FOI requests does not carry any copyright restrictions (unless the original data carries copyright) so there shouldn’t be too many barriers to sharing that directly – being more open and transparent.

Journalism is pretty good at attribution – we know where it’s data comes from,. But we very rarely get to handle the data. We see it, in charts and interactive pieces, but the days where news orgs happily gave us a link to a spreadsheet seem to be long gone (Data champions the Guardian’s list of data sets ends at 2013)  It would be great to see newsrooms, as users of open data,  be a little more open with the data they collect. But in the first instance it would be great to see newsroom simply acknowledge sources for data more fully and more accessibly  – working links, licence details etc.

Some examples:

Politicians claim £500,000 expenses for low-profile meetings abroad – This story from the Guardian is a Press Association piece is one of those neat stories where FOI  gets in the gaps and opens things up. But why not link to a spreadsheet of all the expenses?

UK has 2.3m children living in poverty, government says – This BBC story uses ONS data ‘helpfully’ linked in a PDF. They’s clearly released the data from the PDF so why not push that data out in a more open way.

Outrage as Bristol City Council credit card bill revealed: UGG boots, cinema trips and iTunes songs – Great council story from The Bristol Post. To their credit they even have a ‘text’ version of the data at the end of the article. But the original FOI data could have been linked in.

These are all great stories – this isn’t a comment on the quality of the journalism.

I’m increasingly hearing the refrain that data isn’t enough. We need the context, the stories that go with it. This and the tonne of other DJ content out there show how far we’ve come with this stuff.  But, the flip side is that if we have the stories then we can’t lose the data – the facts behind the story.  This is really important when that data is often second-hand. A number of stories I looked at had data from third-parties i.e. charities.  It’s not that the data is hokey but making it available would make it transparent.

I’m not sure that we are getting the best out of this data if it remains locked inside organisations – regardless of it being a government org or a private org. Taking a bit more of an open mindset would start to make the journalism even more usable.

Image by Kate Ter Haar via Flickr

Open data and rent-seeking economies

Yesterday, I was introduced to a concept I hadn’t heard of before – rent seeking behaviour.  Its an economics term that essentially means that instead of investing time developing things that you can sell, you spend all your money making it really hard for the other guy to sell their stuff. The best analogy I’ve seen for it so far uses pirates – don’t all the best analogies have pirates!

As someone who works in journalism it was nice to finally have a way to describe the approach of commercial news organisations to the BBC.  But I digress. I came across it in the context of open data. Chris Taggart Co-Founder & CEO at OpenCorporates used it, saying it was the kind of behaviour that making data open discouraged.

It makes sense. In an information economy we tend not to make stuff other than information and increasingly we build economies around protecting that information. It’s collected and combined (and I’m not discounting the value of that process) but it’s not ‘ours’.  As consumers we are becoming more aware through our own understanding or by others efforts to lift the stones, of the value of data. So anywhere there a low level of transparency there’s a risk of rent-seeking that directly impacts us.  You can see how open data would ‘bust’ that except that it relies on two things:

  1. it assumes that those that benefit from the rent-seeking in the first place would change their ways. Yes, the logic of diminishing profits is compelling but in a world where we trade at micro-second speed, who’s in it for the long game?
  2. it assumes that the open data ecosystem isn’t in danger of rent-seeking itself.

At the moment, much of the open data economy may not be rent-seeking but it does seem to do a lot of sub-letting *. It borrows data from others to make its own products. It often add a lot of understanding (and value) but often not very much new data.

Advocates of open data would perhaps point at the Government as the biggest rent-seeker in the data market. But open data is now as much a business as it is a movement for transparency and accountability. Instead if using lobbying and legislation of traditional rent-seeking, it’s licensing that seems to be the means of control.  So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at the amount of ‘open-washing’ I see in the open data community but it would be a shame if the lobbying took over from the core business of making more data more open.

* I know, the kind of rent in rent-seeking is not the same as housing rent but

Image from Peter on Flicker 

#HLDJ Conference 6th and 7th November 2015


This isn’t meant to be a conference about Hyperlocal data journalism (but it could be!)

It’s a conference about the way that Hyperlocal AND/OR data AND/OR journalism might work together. I think that there are three distinct but related areas where there are new opportunities. I’ve got some basic definitions of the three areas below for you to agree or disagree with (have at ’em in the comments)

Each of the areas has it’s own distinct ideological and practical approaches.

  • they operate as an identity
  • they operate as a service
  • they all have a role to play in social, economic and political innovation

This would be a free conference in Preston and I’d like your help in what it should cover. My idea is to have one day of insight and examples (not an academic conference). But because I know that some people think there’s too much talking and not enough doing,  I’d like to have another day that’s more workshop based – practical how-to sessions. Time to think and time to do. Best of both worlds.

If you think you’d like to come then you’d really be helping me out by filling in the survey below.



The NESTA Here and Now report broadly defines hyperlocal as:

“Online news or content services pertaining to a town, village, single postcode or other small, geographically defined community.”

Open Data

The Open Foundation has produced a wildly accepted definition of Open Data:

“Open means anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share for any purpose (subject, at most, to requirements that preserve provenance and openness).”

Put most succinctly:

“Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose


A definition of journalism that all can agree on is less straightforward. The  Wikipedia definition, calling on a well respected textbook for journalism says that:

“Journalism is gathering, processing, and dissemination of news and information related to the news to an audience. The word applies to both the method of inquiring for news and the literary style which is used to disseminate it.”



Pulling policing data into google sheets

Last week I had a regional newspaper group in for a few days exploring lots of different things. One area that popped up was data and we did a quick breakout looking at some data from an FOI on 101 calls.  It was a whirlwind overview – you can see the much more considered and in-depth take on it here.

The sessions are always a great motivator for me to explore and one of the things that came up was mapping areas.

It turns out that publishes KML files for all the police force boundaries and the neighborhood policing boundaries – great stuff.  That means you can import a KML file straight into Google Maps and get something like this:

Except that when I downloaded the boundary files from Lancashire police. Instead of files named after the areas, they had cryptic numbers like D2.kml.  Matching the numbers to the area name ended up being a slog through finding the area and then fishing the code out of the URL. Not great.

The code is in there somehwere
The code is in there somehwere

What you can do is query the api (the thing that drives part of

Try firing this into your browser :

Depending on your browser you’ll get something like:

The raw output of an API call to
The raw output of an API call to


Now you could try Alt+F and do a quick search….hmm

Importing data into a spreadsheet

You can see the problem. Unless you’re doing it all programatically, matching the codes to the areas so you can get some simple mapping or analysis done is a bit of a pain. So I decided to explore if I could use the api to try and pull it all together into a spreadsheet as a kind of look-up table:

The spreadsheet contains links to api calls to pull in boundary data as well as other stuff. It uses a script called importJSON which means you can query the data from the police api directly and have it appear nicely in a spreadsheet. More on that in this article, but I’d recommend a play with it because once you have the script in, and now we know stuff like the neighbourhood ID,  we can query the api directly we can pull all sorts of data into a spreadsheet

This example pulls in street level crime based on location

So we can start using the api in a semi automated way to quickly pull in data to process.

Let me know what you think.

Icons of the dead: visualising the deaths of migrant workers in Qatar.

Update: The data from the WaPo story was challenged by the Qatar Government resulting in an amendment stating that the data was deaths for all migrants not just those working on world cup venues. Something, in a uncharacteristic bit of comment baiting,  Roy Greenslade felt the need to point out.

The Washington Post is getting a lot of (social media) interest with a visualisation of the The human toll of FIFA’s corruption. It links the recent FIFA arrests and alleged bribery in the bid for Qatar to get the word cup to the miserable plight of foreign workers building the stadiums for the 2022 event. It’s a compelling graphic and one that makes effective use of scrolling.

It’s not a new idea – it calls to mind a visualisation from last year by, recently closed,  data journalism site Ampp3d:


Breaking down the numbers of dead against the teams and then giving you the remainder is a powerful visual storytelling device, as many commented at the time, especially in mobile where the smaller screen meant more scrolling, emphasising the scale of the deaths. It was something Buzzfeed proved later that year with a visualisation of how many soldiers died in World War I.

The staggering number of deaths of migrant workers means that any visualisation is going to have and impact. The difference in scale in this chart from London Loves Business in 2014 (charting similar data to the WaPo piece),  gives you the same scrolling impact:


The sheer height of any comparative data has an interesting interplay with architecture, something that spontaneous architects Axel and Sylvain Stampa Macaux thought about. At first glance their visualisation exploits that construction metaphor.


But it’s actually a plan for an imagined piece of real architecture:

Compelling stuff.

All of this gives me pause for thought.

On the one hand it makes me think of innovation in journalism. Many have noted how innovative Ampp3d was in data journalism. A mainstream news org putting that form of storytelling out there, doing journalism with graphics and, more importantly, emotion, has given others permission to try.  I’m not saying the Wapo copied ampp3d.  The journalism industry is one that thrives on monitoring and imitation for innovation – look at the use of listicles and quizzes.  It’s interesting to see how this helps make new forms of storytelling acceptable and how it filters through.

UPDATE: As this video from Channel Four suggests

On the other, and more fundamentally, it reminds me about the challenges of making data from the human experience.

The Wapo piece opens with the line “In the end, it only took a $150 million scandal to make Americans care about soccer.”  That’s care about football, not to care about the death of 1000’s of migrant workers; something that’s been reported on for a few years now.

How do we keep the idea that this is a human being not a data point?

I’m not having a pop at the Washington Post there. It’s really a fundamental challenge in journalism – how do you get people to care about what’s happening to people far, far away who, to all intents and purposes, are nothing like them? In the economics of news agendas, proximity is factor. You need more deaths the further away from market you are if you want to work your way up a running order.   Paul Bradshaw wrote about that a while back, pondering the scale at which we can lose the human in the statistic. The Ampp3d piece plays on this nicely – 23 players for 23 lives; 23 people you can relate to for 23 you can’t.  It adds context for the audience.

The challenge to convert the ‘impact of the scroll’ into concern for the people that whizz by. As I say, it’s not a new challenge, but one that is perhaps more of a challenge when you’re competing for eyes and the kind of content consumption that creates  opportunities in the scroll in the first place.

The socially shareable nature of graphics like the Wapo one can’t be underestimated in their impact. Already people are using it to lobby sponsors on Twitter. So it’ll be interesting to see what impact the Wapo version of the chart (and the story) has this time around with the added FIFA element for context.


Hyperlocal. open data. journalism conference: If you’ll come, I’ll build it.

Update: I’ve decided on dates. 6th and 7th of November 2015 in Preston. If you’re interested you can tell me what you’d like to see through a quick survey

As part of my current research activity into hyperlocal and open data, I’m finding myself at events talking to a lot of people in open data circles and a lot of people in Hyperlocal circles. But more often than not they aren’t the same events.

I know there are lots of moves to get hyperlocal’s interested in data journalism (especially with the election fresh in peoples mind). Likewise I know that a lot of open data people are also committed to (or ideologically disposed to ) the transparency and accountability aspects of journalism.

So, finding myself with some resources (that does mean money), I thought it would be fun to get some people in the same room.

So if you’re a hyperlocal, open (government) data person, journalist or local government person involved in data, would you come round to my place for a mini-conference on Making hyperlocal data journalism?

I have some ideas for what we could do…

  • Some open training sessions in data for hyerplocals
  • Some awareness raising from government people about what’s happening at a local level in terms of data
  • Business models for hyperlocal data
  • Best practice for working together to build data communities at a local level.
  • can (and should) government tell stories with data

…but I know loads of people are doing some or all of these things already so if nothing else,  it may just serve as a chance to get together and share this stuff with a hyperlocal focus.

At this stage I’d love to know if you’d be interested. What would you like to see? What format should it take? Who would you like to see speak or be in the room?

Initially I was thinking about a day or two at the end of August (maybe beginning of September but don’t want to clash with this event in Cardiff). But it could be later if people thought that was better. It would be in Preston.

Let me know in the comments below what, who and when to get the ball rolling.

Credit: Sofa picture Creative commons by net_efekt via Flickr