How open is open data journalism?

Simon Rogers published a post last week that asked “What does data journalism look like in 2016?”. For Rogers, the winners of the data journalism awards “give us a great sense of where the industry is right now.”

He’s right, the range and depth of the use of data is reassuring and the points Simon raises are well made and offer much food for thought.

But I did find myself getting snagged on one of his points: Open data is still vital.

The awards had a specific category for Open data:

Open data award. Using freedom of information and/or other levers to make crucial databases open and accessible for re-use and for creating data-based stories.

The language used here sits comfortably next to generally accepted definitions of open data. Here’s the definition of open data from for example:

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

The Open Data Handbook definition is helpful in highlighting the sharing element:

Open data is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike.

The winner of the open data category, LA NACION DATA — OPEN DATA Journalism for change is, as Rogers notes in his post:

“a model of open data journalism and this year won the prize for its approach to opening up public datasets in a country with no FOI laws and a long history of limiting media access to government information.”

It does everything required of it by both the definition and the category description. A well deserved win.

Rogers also cites Excesses Unpunished, by Convoca in Peru which “opened up public data to help its users understand the country’s mining industry better.” The project is a media rich and superbly executed investigation and presentation; it pulls together multiple data sources and offers a deeply informative view making the issue and the information accessible. That’s different from open. And there is the snag.

By the definition of open data (and the category criteria) the Convoca report didn’t fully open up public data. Where is the data that means I can check the work or make my own stories? The data they have created isn’t open and accessible for re-use.

And there is the snag.

If you look at other entries the shortlist in the category, it’s a similar story.

THE EXPRESS TRIBUNE (Pakistan)— a nice piece of data driven investigation into the health issues caused by urban pollution that builds on existing research with solid reporting. Sadly the study by Khyber Teaching Hospital and Peshawar Traffic Police conducted isnt linked. Neither is the Nature report. VERDICT: CLOSED DATA

Trinity Mirror(UK) — a great piece of local journalism with a nice level of interaction. But the data is from a commercial supplier with paid for access to the original data. VERDICT: CLOSED DATA

Modern Investor magazine (UK) — A deep and focussed investigation into local government pension schemes that, for small team, packs a punch. The investigation done in part with data derived from hundreds of FOI requests has created a “unique database”…that isn’t open. VERDICT: CLOSED DATA

LeMonde (France) — A great piece of work, in particular their partnership with journalism students but where is the data? VERDICT: CLOSED DATA

It’s not all bad news though. The IndiaSpend (India) project is a great piece of sensor driven data journalism. I love it. But where is the data that drives the map? The umbrella IndiaSpend project does have a “data room” which shows a plan to make the data open VERDICT: OPEN (SUSPENDED)

For me, the only other shortlisted project on the list besides La Nacion, that makes the grade in terms of open is MWAZNA.(Egypt). Their attempt to ”explain and visualize government budget for everyone” is admirable and works well. Best of all, the data is available to download with clear liscence and in an open format. VERDICT: OPEN

Mwazna  Downloads
MWAZNA’s Budget in’s and out’s interactive links to the data which is clearly open. Exemplary stuff.
All but two of the projects on this list (three if we accept the direction of travel IndiaSpend are taking) actually make their data open. Remember, this is the shortlist not all entries. So these are deemed as open data by the judges.

So what’s the problem.

It’s fair to argue that resources and technology are an issue when it comes to making data open, they are. But Mwazna entered in the small newsroom category and LeMonde are clearly not short of resources in comparison. So you can’t say its size.

Privacy and data protection are also appropriate concerns I’ve heard voiced around opening up newsroom data — especially in a world where protecting sources and responsible use of data are often linked. This is a fair concern as far as it goes but as open data advocates are fond of telling government and other bodies, opening up data doesn’t have to mean all your data. If you have a dataset running a visualizations then that data set shouldn’t have data protection or privacy issues associated with it.

What is open data journalism?

I think the real problem is the use of the word open. As I have noted elsewhere, open is really about where do you put the pipe.

  • open| data journalism — data journalism done in an open way.
  • open data | journalism — journalism done with open data.

Either way, the shortlist reflects, at best, a patchy approach to both views.

There is an all too common confusion by journalists of the use of FOI to get data and open data. Using FOI is not open data. Its using a mechanism of open government to get data. Yes the data you get may well be delivered in an open way it may even be open data. But using FOI to “open up data” to do journalism and then not sharing the data you use is not open data or open journalism.

Open data journalism should be using open data, FOI’s or any other sources to collect data to tell a story and then sharing THAT data with your audience.

Does it matter?

Just to be very clear here. I’m not saying that any of the work here is bad journalism. So perhaps I’m being dogmatic or even a little pedantic about the use of the term open data. When there is clearly such good journalism going on shouldn’t we just get on with it? Well, maybe.

But if the practice of data journalism is to deliver on transparency and openness, then it needs to be part of the process. The data it has needs to be open and, especially when it judges itself, it needs to respect the full extent of what that means rather than simply adopting the phrase in such an uncritical way.

I think if journalism really started to embrace the broader meaning of open data, it would be better off for it.

The Panama Papers & trickle down journalism

I’ve been reading a lot about the Panama Papers.

As a ‘thing’, the Panama Paper’s is an amazing project. It’s pretty much written the textbook on how to run a 21st Century journalism investigation overnight. The networked nature, the secrecy all of those elements, the recognition of a global perspective, have been robustly tested over nearly two years of investigation. It’s massively valuable.

The involvement of the ICIJ has been a really interesting part for me. I’ve been watching the emergence of organisations like ProPublica (and, in some respects Wikileaks) for a while and the role of allied journalistic organisations has been fascinating to see. It goes beyond philanthropy and, to some extent, advocacy. The intermediary role of these organisations is a vital pivot point for pulling together investigations like this.

I’ve also been reading that this is the breakthrough for for data journalism.

If we see data journalism as a process — the mechanics of using data — then the Panama Papers is inarguably proof that modern investigative journalism needs data journalism skills.

But if you believe that data journalism reflects something more — a broad approach to journalism that is ‘new’ or different than the old then its a powerful hook on which to hang the view. I’ve certainly seen enough conversation to suggest that the Panama Papers represent a vindication of data journalism — the resignation of Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has been used to invoke Watergate — the head on a spike that data journalism can do what ‘traditional journalism’ can do and bring down presidents.

The impact, especially for what it means for data journalism, has been measured and discussed in a quite rarefied way. It’s exciting for journalism insiders and the sheer scope of the story makes it ‘feel’ important — and yes. It is important.

But as the ‘story’ percolates into the national context it moves beyond the broad shock(or lack of it) the extent to which dictators, war criminals and others break the law to hide their ill gotten gains. In the UK a least, it’s fast become an ideological issue — people aren’t breaking the law but it is it right? — it has becomes political. In the academic sense it remains elite.

What impact it might have or the extent to which it will move further down the ‘accountability’ chain to a regional or local level is yet to be seen. Will we be seeing the impact of the Panama Papers at local council level? Maybe. But I do think there is a risk that the Panama Papers could end up a whole new form of trickle down journalism; the impact and benefits remain in the elite journalism sphere and don’t find their way down the chain*. Perhaps that’s more about the state of the channels for accountability further down the chain — there are less places for this stuff to trickle.

I’d hope the sheer weight and scale of the story would apply enough pressure to shift some of the blockages. Once the raw information starts to flow ( and I hope it will) and we can begin to look for more ‘local’ angles, then we will really see if the lessons learned as well as the story really will have the impact it deserves.

That’s where I also think data journalism as a broad concept rather than just a description of a mechanical process has the best opportunity to show its value. As much as the Panama Papers add to an enviable cannon of big wins for data journalism, there is a chance here to show the lessons can scale down as well as up.

*Just to be clear. I know there has been some criticism of the lack of transparency from organizations like Wikileaks that have been couched in these terms. I think the approach so far to not opening up all the ‘data’ has been sensible and appropriate. That said, I do think it is a bullet they are going to have to bite sooner rather than later.

MOJO on Android?

Me and the HTCOne. Getting to know each other

I’m spending some time with Android doing audio and video. I know, why would I do that when there’s the iPhone?

You get strong vibes from the community that Android is very unfriendly to ‪#‎mojo‬. I’m often suspicious of that kind of thing on the basis that’s it’s often over-familiarity with other platforms that makes for some entrenched thinking. But that assumption aside. Given that nearly 50% of my j-students are non-Apple it’s a concern for me that the response to #mojo issues is ‘wait for an upgrade and buy an iPhone’. This industry doesn’t do waiting very well.

Don’t get me wrong, I wrote this on an iPhone and will no doubt check in later on an iPad. I’m not having a downer on iOS or Mojo for that matter (although what’s this obsession with plugging things in and bolting stuff on? Seems a bit Freudian if you ask me!). It’s more that it feels like it’s becoming a singular platform phenomenon. In effect we have iMOJO but without theMOJroid to balance it out. It’s at risk of creating another exclusivity that we don’t need in journalism.

That said, and to be honest I have to say Android is proving hard to like. Some of it is me; that over familiarity with Apple thing. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve gone to click the home button for example. I know I’m out of a comfort zone. But some of it is just the strangeness of Android. As a user, it feels like an OS where all the parts are designed by different people and then bolted together…Oh. Wait…

Anyway, perhaps the best I can say at the moment is that it’s not going out of its way to win my support, but perhaps its not as actively difficult as people might say.

Let’s say we are at the ‘its just different’ stage.

I’m not advocating that we all make MOJroid work (or, God forbid, adopt the term) but maybe ‘mojo’ could work a little harder at alternatives, stretch the comfort zone a little. Perhaps different is OK. Supply and demand and all that.

I’ll keep you informed of my progress but in the meantime. Tried and tested so far (with the help of the amazing Mr @documentally) are:

  • Kinemaster: feature full but pricey video editor
  • Viva video: gimmicky in places but very workable editing and better price than KineMaster
  • Picmotion: good photo slideshow app that lets you record your own VO. Weird audio quality issue when using phone mic which can be bypassed by using hands free mic.
  • Cinema FV-5 lite. A nice app to open up the features of the video camera. More controls, better tweaking etc. Higher res video opptions(1280×960 and above) are in the pro version

UPDATE: These apps and others appear on Bernhard Lill’s excellent Thinglink for basic android mojo

Journalism Ethics in a digital world: In an nutshell

For the last six years or so I’ve done a guest lecture on a colleague’s Journalism Ethics module around the title ethics in a digital world. All the lectures tend to be around the same theme – if you want to be treated as a journalist, you need to behave like one and that might be at odds with the way everyone else does it.

The slide above represents the lightbulb moment when I realised what that six years really boiled down to.

The detail is in what that means, who sets the behaviour etc.  is the lecture – these sitting through it might have preferred the slide! It’s also worth noting that my attempts to wrestle with the issue have resulted in a little of the devils-advocate/challenging ideas. This is presented in the same spirit.

So, here’s a bit of meat on the bones (not the whole lecture) of the slide for which I am massively indebted to Wil Wheaton for 


As I’ve researched the lectures, one thing thats become clear is that most conversation around journalism ethics conversations fall into one of two categories:

  1. Legal issues – most of what are considered ethical issues are actually legal issues. This seems especially common around the issue of comments and using user generated content and social media.
  2. Most ethics codes are about the process not of being fair and good but of not looking like a dick/idiot.

A good example of number 2 is the use of material from social media. A lot of ethical guidelines focus on the way you can verify images and multimedia from social media so that you don’t fall foul of hoaxes or people with agendas. Outsides of a, frankly academic, debated about the difference between professional ethics and, well, ethics,  I don’t see fact checking as an “ethical issue”. Integrity? Brand protection? Yes. Ethics? No.

Ethics asks you why you did something not how.

On being an idiot

It could be argued that no one wants to look like an idiot but experience has taught me that this very much depends on the audience and if nothing else, as journalists we play to an audience. The web and social media in particular have been instrumental in giving the audience a voice, but they have also raised the curtain on journalism and allowed all journalists, not just the chosen few a channel for their own voice and the audience that comes with the social and cultural capital journalism as a profession gives us. More chance to be seen and heard and more chance to be ‘unethical’.

Katy Hopkins: The Ethical Journalist?

You may look, for examples, at Katy Hopkins and think Idiot!*  But there’s a huge audience who think that she isn’t. So, she doesn’t care if you think she’s an idiot and neither do they.  You may, fully believe that you’re right and she isn’t, make this point clear to her and her followers (who by association you think are idiots too); feel good about it but reap the vitriolic whirlwind that follows.

If you did it because you genuinely think they are idiots and you need them to know that – well done! Stick to your guns and fight your corner and that’s an ethical decision.  Do it to get a few articles/retweets and follows out of it  – less so. Ethically you’re in danger of being as much of an idiot as they are.

Increasingly the underlying argument by many media ethics people (interpreting journalists actions and responses)  is that in a digital world to be ‘ethical’, you have to ask yourself why you’re doing something not just rely on the existing structures around you – in many peoples eyes the underpinning principles of those structures (balance etc.) aren’t fit for purpose anymore.  You also need to be happy that you’ve thought deeply about it, but you’re also prepared to live with the consequences.

I realise that by this definition, it could be argued that Katy Hopkins is actually quite ethical. On two of my counts. Maybe.  But she falls foul of the last one. Because no matter how existential your own reasoning may be, as a human being (not a journalist) you still have a duty of care – we’re not Iain Duncan Smith!. So if what you do intentionally causes harm to others and you know it will, that’s not ethical.

Here’s a less contentious/cleaner version for your newsroom.


(*I’m using idiot and dick interchangeably here) 

Ernest Hemingway on Adblocking

Whilst doing my daily read around of various things, I found myself at Forbes’ website. I was greeted by the usual pithy ‘quote of the day’ pop-up but with an added element – it was asking me to turn off my adblocker. To be honest I didn’t even know I had one turned on.

Forbes Welcome

What struck me in this instance was not the message; I get the reasoning and I hear the for and against for this strategy. What got me, was the juxtaposition of the quote and the request.   Problem and solution all in one.

What are the ingredients for creating a journalism portfolio?

I’m currently putting together the details for one of my modules for Semester 2. It’s called Multiplatform Journalism and its aimed at first-year journalism students.  The general aim is to introduce them to the idea of digital informed journalism in a genre agnostic way. In plain english –  it doesn’t matter if you want to work in newspapers, broadcast or any other ‘type’ of journalism you want to make, digital skills are going to be a part of what you do.

We know that using digital skills in finding and developing stories makes for better content and using platforms like social media and the ubiquitous web presence, helps build a bigger audience for your content. So my general theme this year is the use of digital to enhance and amplify.

We have to assess this in some way and broadly, the assignment takes the form of a portfolio – a guided collection of content that shows a range of digital skills. Just to head some possible issues off at the pass, I’d also expect that the work would also show a good standard or ‘journalism’ – some news sense, proper sourcing and attention to some basic editorial standards etc.

I’ve got some ideas of what should be represented or contribute in the portfolio:

  • Audio and video skills
  • Meaningful image making
  • Social media and UGC awareness
  • Data journalism and visualisation

I’m also pondering things like analytics and mobile but thinking about how that is represented in terms of content outside the broad areas above.

That said, beyond my thoughts, I was wondering if people had other ideas about what they would look for in a portfolio to show some forward momentum. This is first years but I’m convinced that the kind of exit velocity you need to push into the industry these days means taking all the opportunities you can from day one.

So should I make a listicle mandatory? Should a liveblog of an event be the kind of thing to assess a first year on? What kind of video is good video?  Let me know.

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)