The connected middle class: Ofcom and civic internet use

OFCOM have released their Adults’ media use and attitudes report for 2015. It’s a report that is always worth a read through. This is the ten year anniversary edition with a good deal of the content around the release reflecting changes since 2005.

As you may have guessed from recent posts, I’ve got my head in open data stuff at the moment.  My focus is on hyperlocal use and the use of, for want of a better term, open government data. So that’s focused my first glance read through.

A few general things struck me. One was how media and internet mean the same thing in this report; 10 mentions of newspaper compared to 119 of social media. The lack of any mention of LocalTV also struck me as odd. I know it’s not strictly what the report was about but given the role of OFCOM in this and the apparent purpose of Local TV I’d have thought it would have been worth putting it in context.

Anyway, predictably, its the data on platform use, mobile in particular, is getting lots of attention. But, given my current focus, the bit that really peaked my interest was section 5.9 Accessing public or civic services . Here’s the intro:

Internet users are more likely than in 2013 to have ever gone online for all public/ civic activities, and a higher proportion have completed government processes in the last three months

Out of the thirty two individual online activities that internet users were asked about six activities that can be grouped under the heading of public or civic services. These are:

1. Find information about public services provided by local or national government

2. Complete government processes online – such as register for tax credits, renew driving licence, car tax or passport, complete tax return

3. Look at websites/ apps for news about or events in the local area/ the local community

4. Look at political/ campaign/ issues websites

5. Sign an online petition

6. Contact a local councillor or your MP online

Number 3 bodes well for hyperlocal, apparently 69% of those asked used websites/ apps for news about or events in the local area/ the local community; the biggest percentage point rise in any of the activities listed. But in general, everything is on the rise.


Where things get a little less inspiring is when that usage gets broken down by age and demographic group


The significant differences for 16-24 and 65+ makes for disturbing reading when it comes to engaging online. As do the lower socio-economic group figures.



Given the new governments view on moving public services online and their approach to supporting those without connectivity, the trends worry me. I’m really sensing a  ‘digital divide’ here especially given that OFCOM  note that of the 14% (a figure unchanged since 2013) of non-users of the internet, six in ten are aged 65+ and half are from DE households.

It’s not that people aren’t using the services but I don’t think I’m guilty of any conflation when I say the level of engagement of the middle-class connected makes it likely that they are the ones who will be most engaged with.

Time will tell.

Main image Mobile futures ©NYC Media Lab via Flickr CC BY-SA

Open data: What can we expect from the conservatives?

We have a conservative government in the UK for the next five years.  I’ve been looking at open data a lot for some research that I’m doing so I wanted to cast a proper eye over their manifesto to see what was on the cards.

I’m not the first to do this. The ODI, among others  did a good job of collating the open data related promises in the party manifestos. Charles Arthur at the Guardian covered similar ground in his ‘technology’ reading of each parties manifesto.

But, now we know who we are dealing with over the next few years I wanted to take a look and get my thoughts down. But it worth noting what open data means. You can take two definitions and get the gist.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has a pretty precise definition of what open data is:

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

In 2013 the G8 made explicit a commitment to open data in a charter which stated that open data sits at the heart of a revolution in communication technology that has the:

enormous potential to create more accountable, efficient, responsive, and effective governments and businesses, and to spur economic growth.

Reading between those definitions and their extended narrative you get a sense of two distinct themes  – accountability and innovation.  The two don’t always play well together but often go hand-in-hand e.g. better access to government spending means more transparency. Using that data for improving public services means innovation.

It really comes down to an issue of who is using it and for what.

So, with that in mind (and now you know what’s informing my thinking) I worked my way, as others have done,  through the manifesto looking for keywords ‘data’, ‘open data’ and ‘publish’.

Let’s start with what they will publish?:

We will require companies with more than 250 employees to publish the difference between the average pay of their male and female employees (p19)

Interesting data but already a requirement that was part of the Small Business Bill put through in March this year. Ironically it was an amendment by the Lib Dems.

We will publish more earnings and destination data for Further Education courses, and require more accreditation of courses by employers.(p35)

It’s tricky to unpick this one. There have been consultations on more data for adult learners in Further Education and the Skills funding (SFA) had already made reporting of more data around final destinations mandatory, although this was not for all learners. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

It’s interesting to see this on the same page as a pledge to require universities to make

more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates

There’s already a good deal of data kicking around of students perceptions of universities (see NSS). It feels like a lighter touch than the Further Education demands but that’s not a surprise given the more commercial footing the Higher Education sector is taking (and it’s big international market).

We will publish standards, performance data and a ranking system for the security of smartphones and tablets, as well as online financial and retail services. (p59)

This is an interesting one. This one seems to be read in the context of information security. I guess if we are going to be more data driven, we need to be more savvy about what is happening to our data. It’ll be interesting to see how this one pans out. Could we see a security rating on phones like the Euro NCAP for cars?

Of course information security concerns are often cyber crime concerns.  It’s already been touted that the Conservatives see the majority as a chance to push through the ‘Snoopers Charter’.  It’s the other side of the data coin in their manifesto:

We will keep up to date the ability of the police and security services to access communications data – the ‘who, where, when and how’ of a communication, but not its content. Our new communications data legislation will strengthen our ability to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming gangs, even as technology develops (p63)

Don’t worry though. If you live in the SW then there’s a promise of investment to support the cyber security industry there (p11). And if you a criminal, they would let the police keep more of your assets, which is how they may fund ‘Cyber Specials’ to police it all (p59).

That’s it in terms of a direct statement to ‘publish’. That doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t plans for more data and related areas.

We will boost transparency even further, ensuring you can access full information about the safety record of your hospital and other NHS or independent providers, and give patients greater choice over where and how they receive care.

Not a commitment to publish but a commitment to make full information accessible. I’m sure negotiation on what this will mean  and what form it takes will be massively political.  This clearly falls into the service reform agenda of open data (and government) but it could be rich pickings for those looking for a boom in the kind of health consumer apps that Nigel Shadbolt talked about in his closing keynote to the ODI summit last year.

What level of control you have over that, the private vs public vs open debate, isn’t dealt with in any depth. It’s going to be opt in and who it’s shared with…

We will give you full access to your own electronic health records, while retaining your right to opt-out of your records being shared electronically (p38)

Of course, the private provider they pick to manage the infrastructure will have had the cyber security standards checked and published.

Moving online is seen as a big part of the process of reducing government spending. But what about those people not online? (Later: which given what ofcom say in their media use report, should still be a concern) Don’t worry

We will ensure digital assistance is always available for those who are not online, while rolling out cross-government technology platforms to cut costs and improve productivity – such as GOV.UK (p49)

That doesn’t mean more Barclay’s Digital Eagles :

We will help public libraries to support local communities by providing free wifi. And we will assist them in embracing the digital age by working with them (p41)

Good job too as all the books will be going digital

We will assist them in embracing the digital age by working with them to ensure remote access to e-books, without charge and with appropriate compensation for authors that enhances the Public Lending Right scheme. (p42)

So more digital access – and an interesting (re)negotiation with publishers which, like the gender pay data seems to have happened already.

But an expectation that Libraries will need to rely on volunteers to run, as Ed Vaizey told Library professionals in a statement:

Many libraries have also been able to attract large numbers of volunteers who are helping to run and provide services to users. It is precisely this sort of collaboration and innovation that libraries need to be considering as they look to attract more visitors and remain relevant.


Of course the solution is to make sure everyone has better access to the web (of course it is) so the government is pledging that 95% of the country will have superfast broadband access by 2017.

And who will pay for that, you will, through the licence fee?

we will continue to ‘topslice’ the licence fee for digital infrastructure to support superfast broadband across the country.

But they want more broadband power:

We will also release more spectrum from public sector use to allow greater private sector access. And we have set an ambition that ultrafast broadband should be available to nearly all UK premises as soon as practicable (p15)


Ultrafast! All good news and the release of the spectrum would seem to underpin the aim to make the UK ” a world leader in the development of 5G”.  But making the spectrum more commercial without any nod to the pricing of data (key to access for many) other than, I’m assuming the implicit assumption that the market will drive prices down, seems naive.


There are lots of other things in there that are related but this is what stood out for me.

  • Commitments to publish data were minimal or has already been done.
  • Commitments to data sits in the service reform rather than transparency agenda
  • Data is a market driven proposition

So there’s an underpinning of the infrastructure and economic environment that will mean open data and data economies will have plenty to go at. But as a citizen, looking at a neo-liberal market approach to data for the next five years, I’m feeling in an odd place.

Years ago when the free our data campaign asked government to give up what we had already paid for, it made sense. Now I see an economy slowly building around open data, and more specifically open government data, and I’m wondering whether I should be looking at those companies through Catapults and the like and asking a similar question.


Open data overload:yorkopendata and #localdata15

For the last week it’s feels like my life has been all about opendata.

My immersion into the world of open data that started last Friday with my trip up to Leeds for the DataDive, continued with two events driven by open data.

Launching York Open Data
Launching York Open Data

Monday, and I was in sunny York (very nice place to set up office for the day) for the launch of York City Council’s YorkOpenData portal. York, and the localTV station Hello York, are part of the Media Mill project I’m research partner for.

Ian Cunningham, Group Manager of the Council’s Shared Intelligence Bureau, introduced the session, with an invite for everyone to pitch in and help them understand what data would be useful to ‘open’. It came with an honest (and open) assessment of the realities of dealing with open data – the phrases ‘we can’t do it all’ and ‘we can’t be all things’ were common. But regardless of the cautiousness, events like this and honest intentions are important in starting to build the networks you need to make open data work.



The next day, I heard that message echoed around the conference room at the Museum of science and industry in Manchester. I was there for the Local open data: Reaping the benefits event.

The event, organised by opendata platform people Swirrl (a round up of tips from the event is on their blog), saw a range of local government themed presentations sharing best practice and ideas around building value in open data.

If there was a key theme that emerged from the event, it was transparency. More specifically the problems that the focus on the transparency agenda causes open data.

Part of it is practical – servicing the central government demand for Key Service Performance Indicators is resource heavy. Open data is seen as a time consuming extra when you’ve got a council to run. It’s an interpretation of transparency that also seems to hoist a lot of idealogical baggage onto open data – Transparency and open data are often synonymous in much of the rhetoric. So the emphasis here was about changing the message to one of the value to service reform and improvement.

It was a tension that Lucy Knight from Devon County Council  unpicked in her presentation ‘gently lampooning’ attitudes to open data in councils.  She stressed the value of understanding the user need for open data (you can help her generate user cases) rather than getting caught up in the “cargo cult” of data dashboards.

Thinking about how transparency can drive thinking,  it was interesting to hear from a number of projects from Scotland including hackevents and the Scottish Cities Alliance and their approaches to open data.

Ian Watt from Aberdeen’s codethecity project noted that Scotland’s councils don’t have the same pressures/demands for data transparency. It means that open data in Scotland doesn’t necessarily have the same idealogical issues. I think that will make for some tantalising opportunities for researchers looking at comparative models for open data.

Still early days 

A lot of people in the room where there at the start of the journey in open data. One delegate I spoke to was in the second day of his job as an open data lead and he already felt he was playing catch-up.

It speaks volumes of a phenomenon I see a lot of events like this; people always assume the area is more established than it is. The truth is that the diverse nature of local government means this stuff is just starting to trickle down and make a mark. As Mark Braggin’s (formally of Hampshire’s data hub and now one of the organisers of open data camp), taking an agricultural metaphor, reflected: ‘perhaps we can say we are moving from the hand reaping of data to a steam age’.

So it was no surprise then that much the most animated sessions (and the people most cornered at lunch!) where those with success stories.

Jamie Wyte talks about open data and his failed attempt to get a dogpoobinselfie meme started
Jamie Wyte talks about open data and his failed attempt to get a dogpoobinselfie meme started

Jamie Whyte from Trafford Council talked about how the Trafford Innovation and Intelligence Lab started and has developed. It was a great presentation that showed how innovation can grow within an organisation and reflected something of a coup for Jamie, who seems to have built something robust and innovative inside a council – something many people would dismiss as impossible.

Mark Braggins talks about the steady growth in local government data stores


In his presentation, Mark Braggins talked about the broader issues around open data drawing on his experience helping start Hampshire’s data hub. The Hampshire hub seems to be popping up a lot in local government data themed events and it shows how important engagement with communities outside the council (something Mark thought was vital) is.  The range of initiatives ‘seeded’ by the hub shows how well that’s worked.

When I talked to Mark, he stressed how much effort went into understanding the motivations of those within the council when speccing the original project (you can see the full business case on their site). By keeping on message and keeping costs down it became an easy sell – engagement was the cherry on the cake.

Comparing the experiences of the Trafford Innovation and Intelligence Lab and Hampshire hub I was struck by the direction of travel each was taking. Hampshire going out to by default and Trafford building internal capacity and then reaching out. Both open approaches and both working.

For a single day, it was a really rich collection of presentations and good conversation.


Looking back over what is essentially a week of nothing but open data, I think I feel a little more confident in my understanding of the reality of the approaches (and problems) of selling open data as a value proposition rather than an ideological standpoint. My impression is that it’s essentially a pragmatic one – which makes sense.

But, there’s part of me that worries about the democratic affordances of this stuff. As the transparency agenda takes a back seat (or is sidelined) there is a danger that accountability suffers.  For the pragmatism that pervades local government to work you need an equally pragmatic citizens. Part of the promise of open data is that can help individuals become that. That’s great for those who can (and have the resources) but for those that can’t we need an accountable, deliberative democracy.  For me that’s more about reaching out and being more transparent to the community, telling better stories about what you do, rather than asking them to adjust their expectations.

Reflecting on the Leeds #Datadive

Last Friday night,  I found myself in a sun filled loft workshop in Leeds. All the people in the room seemed to be in one corner, but that’s where the (free) bar was.  Tables are set out in rows. Solid wood and rubber topped refugees from the re-fit of Birmingham library. They are already filled with laptops.

This loft space belongs to the ODI’s node in Leeds The laptops belong to data scientists but the people are a mix of the data savvy,  local and national charities. All here for the first, it’s hoped of many, DataDives.

The event was organised by DatakindUK, a chapter of the US group Datakind who “create teams of pro bono data scientists” to work with organisations to solve problems. Local charities are invited to pitch requests for help. If selected they provide data which ,in the run up to the event is cleaned up by data heroes, ready to be pitched at the start of the weekend.  Local organisations also pitched in data. Leeds City Council and their DataMill, for example, had offered up data to use.

So, after beer and chat, the three charities pitched their problems.


  • Volition, representing a large network of mental health organisations in Leeds, had a common problem. Lots of information about the organisations and their work (literally a database of the stuff) but wanted to link it with data about mental health issues in Leeds.
  • Voluntary action Leeds had stacks of interviews with young people, exploring the issue of being a NEET (not in employment, education or training). They wanted a way to sift the text to look for common themes and also wondered if there was a way of detecting unknown Neets in existing demographic data.
  • The Young Foundation (who also co-sponsored the event) have recently set up a new project in Leeds gathering information around financial exclusion. The project, part of a broader range of projects Leeds are running, looks at the growth of loans, payday lenders etc. They wanted to surface data around the issue.

The rest of the evening was a kind of slow-speed-date where the volunteers in the room pitched themselves and their skills and where wooed by the charities. Eventually splitting into teams to get to work on the Saturday and Sunday.


Datakind are an interesting organisation and new one on me.  They are clearly very much at the altruistic end of the hackathon/datalab movement. Their founder is Jake Porway who used to work for the R&D lab at The New York Times (it seems you’re never far away from journalism!). He told Wired that he wanted more from the data boom that was happening around him: “the things that people would do with it seemed so frivolous — they would build apps to help them park their car or find a local bar. I just thought, ‘This is crazy, we need to do something more.'”

That more isn’t just the pro-bono aspect – free data scientists.  The Datakind people in the room are also there to pass on skills to the organisations.

It was great to see the charities getting excited about the possibilities of everything from simple tools like Wordle to more complex text analysis software and maps.

Sunday afternoon and it was time to show and tell.

The end results where a real mix of the complex – synthetic personality types for identifying the financially excluded – to simple infographics. But there was real impact in the data on the people in the room perhaps best exemplified by the debate and discussion that was generated by an extra mapping project that sprang up during the weekend.

They simply took the datasets each group were finding/generating and mapped them. Technically, not that much of a challenge (except for a tricky issue with local government boundaries) but the insights where immediate.


Where is the value.

When I spoke to representatives of the charities, there was a general feeling that data was important. They all recognise that the third-sector is fast becoming data-driven. But beyond the process of writing reports or bids, the real value of data was still to be explored and understood. It just feels important.

The complexities of the third-sector ecosystem don’t help when it comes to raising awareness of events like this though. Even when free help, and experience is on hand.

When I asked people about how they found themselves at the event, it revealed a complex web of umbrella groups, agencies and initiatives – understanding that would need a datadive in itself!  The organisers where similarly challenged; pulling the event together had proved a slower and more complicated process compared to their London datadives.

Good people. Good work.

After the ODI summit last year, I found myself reflecting on the difficult line there is between the power to do good and the power to do business that data provides and after the event I found myself chatting  through similar issues with Paul Connell, one of the founders of the ODI Leeds node. He was pragmatic about the challenges; balancing the urge to do good with the urge to create the new Uber. A tension that often makes hack events tricky spaces.  So, with my research hat on,  its tempting to start try and unpick the motivations of activities like this beyond the desire to give those people involved “the warm fuzzies” as Datakind put it on their homepage.

But the vibe at the Leeds Datadive event really did make it feel impervious to scepticism.  The results, rough round the edges as they were, felt ‘useful’.

As an example: One of the teams, analysing data around NEETS, looked at sanctions imposed on young jobseekers (the stop in benefits that’s imposed if you don’t tow the line with your employment service).  Sanctions vary, but you can get 4 weeks ‘ban’ for missing an appointment.  Mapping the data seemed to make a compelling point – the most sanctions were applied to people who live furthest away from the job centres. That peaked a fair bit of interest from journos in my feed (even on a Sunday morning).

Whether further analysis proves that or, more likely, reveals the finer detail, is moot. In a short space of time, simple but no less surprising truths about the experiences of people in Leeds were revealed.

DatakindUK hope this is going to be the first of many events outside of London and I’d make a point of tracking them down next time.

How can you spot a digital native? Check their little finger.

Apropos of nothing really, I got into an interesting chat with some of the third-year journalism students about how our use of social media would evolve. I wondered aloud about how the physical way we access information might change us.

Writing blisters Vs Phone rub .


I pointed to my middle finger as an example. I have, albeit smaller than it used to be, writing blister. The result of  pressing too hard on my pen through years of school. At it’s peak it was an ink-stained blog on the end of my finger.  Checking with colleagues, they all had the same. Different fingers, but the same rough patch.  How likely, I wondered, was it to have a writing blister today?

According to my students, and I asked the same question of the prospective students I spoke to today, not very. But what they do have is a rough patch of skin on the inside edge of their little finger. It’s caused by resting your phone on your finger when using it. Others reported flatter finger ends or callouses on the ends of their fingers and thumbs. But the rough little finger was the most common.

It got me thinking about shibboleths.  The ways we can distinguish between natives and those new to a culture and it’s landscape.  It’s been interesting to watch people quietly check their little finger and check whether they carry the mark.

The most important code you can learn: the hyperlink

<a href="" > Andy's site </a>

It’s amazing isn’t it? How something so simple can be so fundamental.

In this world of content management systems, data journalism, javascript, python and all the other coding and technological innovations we are compelled to explore, it’s sobering to sit back and reflect on its simplicity.

With this one piece of code you can link a quote from the Chancellor’s budget speech to the figures from the Office of Budgetary responsibility.  You can take people back to events from years before to experience them as if for the first time. You can take someone from Preston to Beijing in one click.

It’s a time-travel machine, a star-trek like transporter, a silent voice in the background of your writing, ready to pitch in and explain or define.

They are the currency of the web – without them Google wouldn’t exist. But it’s ubiquity can also cheapen it. Millions of snake oil salesmen would be out of (second) jobs.

In a digital world I think there is something powerful, almost physical, about being able to add a link ‘the old fashioned way – typing it in longhand. It bypasses the uncritical. Subverts the automated. It offers time to reflect. And in that it creates value.

If you understand the value of a hyperlink, you understand the value of a connection.

How are you going to use something so powerful?

Oborne and the fetish for old school journalism

Like many in the media industry I’ve been confronted with a wall of coverage around Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph. I read his piece when it came out but have sat on my thoughts. That’s mainly because I can trust to those better qualified than me to debate the meat of his criticism – the undue influence of advertisers, which others have developed to also include the influence of proprietors.

But the bit that I’ve been chewing on for the last few days was the first part of Oborne’s resignation piece – the bit I’ll call the ‘don’t forget the print edition bit’

When I first wrote that par it was the ‘ I don’t like digital bit’, but I realize that’s not fair. He’s pro-paper. Clearly the “country solicitors, struggling small businessmen, harassed second secretaries in foreign embassies, schoolteachers, military folk, farmers—decent people” don’t do digital either. If I apply a microscope to the piece there’s recognition of digital. Oborne isn’t “saying that online traffic is unimportant”.

No. He’s saying that the Telegraph has turned it’s back on good journalism and digital is part of that.

So I still bristle a little when I read the piece. Not because of the apparent lack of journalistic integrity  in the British press – who knew! It’s not even because I might think that the Telegraph’s digital strategy is right or wrong.  I bristle because, by design (and I credit Oborne with enough editorial skill that everything  is considered in that piece) he’s conflates digital content with editorial decline and an inherent editorial weakness. Somehow there is a direct line between digital and bowing to pressure from above. Both responsible for the death of ‘quality journalism’.

The fetishising of editorial value.

Like many others who rhetorically define quality journalism at the expense of digital, Oborne takes the freakshow approach and parades a three breasted lady as evidence of the base nature of digital whilst at the same deftly stepping off the stage to point out where the extra tit is stuck on.  All the while avoiding the fact that he always remains a member of the circus.

This ability to be in journalism but not of parts of it is a common trope – the idea of what you do as quality journalism vs well, anything we don’t think is quality. It often comes with a generalized view of what constitutes journalistic values. It’s common across the generations – some young journalists covet the halcyon days of old-school-journalism as much as some of the older generation love to recall them. These were the days of long lunches and masters of a craft not process. The days of country solicitorsschoolteachers, military folk, farmers—decent people with decent values.

And whilst there may have been a golden age of journalism – at least for those who enjoyed them – some of the reaction to and in part some of Obourne’s complaints, show just what a fetish that’s become.

Oborne himself invokes one of the most fetishised parts:

It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart

Desired, yes. Axiomatic? Really! Self-evident? Unquestionable? I think you’d have to be quite selective about your journalism to stand by that statement.

Of course this is an issue of degrees. Yes, I do think there’s a difference in taking a holiday companies junket vs. not running a story about HSBC.   But how long is it going to stand up to scrutiny beyond a single journalists own view of their integrity.

So I’m 100% behind anyone that stands up for a point of principle, Oborne included. He’s as mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore. And good on him for stepping away when the Telegraph failed to stand up to his values – his values.

I’m less happy to see digital so lazily used to paint a broad stroke picture of bad journalism. In Oborne’s case, especially when the second half of his resignation letter offers a much more compelling and, from a UK press perspective, fundamental example of the problems with journalism.

The bottom line is, more than anything else I dislike about this story,  I’ve now got to wade through a mass of people (and I might add an alarming number of them journalists) going “look a SERIOUS journalist has resigned because of digital. He thinks it’s crap”. To borrow from Oborne’s experiences, as a digital advocate I’ll have to put up with people telling me “You don’t know what you are fucking talking about.”. Thanks.

Light the flaming torches and stand back: Are you a good leader of your social media mob?

I’m pulling together my yearly online journalism ethics lecture. It’s the fifth-ish lecture on this module (some previous ones online) and the fast-moving nature of this stuff means I’m really starting from scratch but I always go back to previous ones to see where my thinking was.

A prevailing theme for me has been how the ethical standard is set and who sets it. The online landscape clearly stretches moral and ethical concerns and the question for me has always been about how much of that we take on board, how much we take on the norms of the web, and how much is a more fundamental journalism ethic that we should stand by.

In questioning that in my lectures over the years, what I’ve noticed is that the tone of online journalism has changed. It’s divesting itself of some of the tradition and reveling in the norms of the medium. Ethics is on the move and the volume has gone up.

So this year my general starting point for the lecture is that outrage is the new journalism.

Outrage is nothing new for online journalism (and it’s not a new observation). Take comment sections on news sites. They are great examples of outrage creation – baiting readers with a story you know is going to get comments regardless of the tone of the comments.

Take this example from the Daily Express about the apparent calls to move a grave because of it’s proximity to a Muslim grave. Skip to the comments and revel in the outrage. By a strict reading of any rendering of a professional journalism ethic, it seems pretty hard to defend.

The argument about who is responsible for the comments on a site is well-worn. Comment systems work within resources and the law.  Despite efforts by some publications to curb offensive behavior, the idea that the publication or the journalist take any responsibility for eliciting these comments in the first place seems moot. Even if they are providing the target, the damage is done by those who pull the trigger – the people who comment.

This form of outrage creation is also now common in social media. A casual tweet or post –  ‘you won’t believe what this person just said’ – and a viral hit and loads of links later most walk away. But not everyone.

Increasingly I’m seeing a different form of outrage creation. It’s not the fire-and-forget of an article and it’s comments, it’s sustained, crowd-sourced, journalist as brand-outrage. It’s I’m outraged and I want you to share that outrage . Literally share it. Retweet, hashtag and join me in confronting the source of my outrage.

We can tell ourselves that this is simply engaging with an audience. This is the power of social media to right wrongs. It may be. But by another name it’s an angry mob. It may be hashtag shaped pitchforks and flaming torch apps but it’s a mob and it’s your influence (often affiliation with a recognisable journalism brand) and audience (a healthy follower count) that they gather round.

In the social media world its easy to see follower counts as a gauge of popularity. Like audience figures or circulation counts. It’s easy to forget that they are individuals with the capacity to reach out and touch. Perhaps that’s why it can take journalists by surprise when they turn on you.  Still, it can be deceptivly easy to distance yourself from the activities of your audience – they aren’t friends, You don’t follow them; a useful degree of separation.

So when someone posts something vile on social media or trolls another user using a link to your work or a hashtag you’ve promoted, its easy to fall back on the same rhetoric that’s used for commenting on web sites. You might make the ammunition but you don’t fire the gun.

What’s the difference? Is someone who goes on to troll a target of your outrage any less of a responsibility than a commenter on your website? Remember this is ethics not law.

I would argue that whilst the comments on a website help create and feed a mob (with all the issues that can create for a site) what you post on social media means you create and lead a mob.

Social media mobs have done some great things but ethically, are you doing the right thing by and with yours?


 – I know by citing the Daily Express I’m not doing myself any favours. It’s easy to write them, and the commentors, off as some kind of nutjob fringe. Sadly they are journalism. For the sake of this post the visibility and tone served a purpose. I’m sure that journalists from sites with more active moderation (and more generally agreeable politics) would testify to no less offensive and distressing material appearing on their virtual doorstep. 

 – I tried really hard not to push the gun/arms metaphor here but forced to I’d have to say that I don’t think journalists on social media are like gun or ammunition manufacturers, even though the logic of distance against blame makes for some very similar ethical positions. For what it’s worth I think a lot of journalistic use of social media is more like the activities of the National Rifle Association. 

Data Journalism: Meyerism and Vox’s new data team.

A few weeks back I wrote a post about Data Journalism and how it was defined (on Wikipedia at least).  So I was interested to read Vox’s take on it when they announced, last Wednesday, that they were creating a Vox data team:

Interestingly for me,Vox co-founder Melissa Bell, sees their kind of data journalism as a direct descendant of Philip Meyer’s Precision Journalism work on the Detroit Riots (1967).

Forty-eight years after Detroit, precision journalism has given rise to data journalism, which has become a much-touted new media trend.

So Vox’s ‘data journalism’ is 21st Century Precision journalism.

Philip Meyer has become something of an adopted parent to data journalism. The work was not just groundbreaking, more importantly in my view, it was disruptive. It was disruptive to the status-quo of accountability – the assumptions made of those about the rioters. It was also disruptive to journalism. Meyers first iteration of Precision Journalism was directly challenging a prevailing form of literary journalism that many saw as undermining truth and trust. It put science before journalistic belief.  In doing that it was also part of a bigger disruption of sociology – a new wave. It’s no surprise then that, like a patron saint, he is invoked by any new data journalism project looking to define the data journalism they do.And Meyer is a very useful starting point.

It doesn’t matter what hue of data journalism you might be, Meyer fits. For many , Meyer is CAR through and through. But if you don’t like the hypothesis driven, 20th Century trappings of CAR, well, Data Driven journalism has all the same tech but with a nicely positivist, scientific approach. A reading of Meyer that is just as likely to keep those exploring the boundaries of computational and algorithmic journalism happy.

But as much as Meyer offers an agreed (and agreeable) starting point for those looking to unpick the “much-touted new media trend” that is data journalism, for me it’s the fundamental philosophical approach that Meyer disrupts (and suggests in that disruption), that is more useful as a tool to think about data journalism and what it means.

For me, in trying to get a flavor of what’s driving (those involved in) the data journalism conversation, it often comes down to this – which comes first. The data or the question?

A proponent of CAR informed data journalism would tell you that you start with the question: ‘I know that there are dodgy MP’s there, I need the data to tell me how dodgy’. It’s all about sampling. Your DDJ fan would tell you that by analyzing and linking data we would ‘discover’ that there were dodgy MP’s. It’s about having all the data.

In a Q& A in the comments (nice idea) Bell gives Vox’s perspective on the which comes first question:

It is definitely both. You can start with an idea and seek out data to help answer the questions, or you can start with a data set and surface stories from the changes discovered within that set. Either way, it’s always about being constrained only by your imagination!

So, very much story driven. If we have the data we’ll do something with it.

Editorial Products Engineering Director Ryan Mark steps in to answer a question about the amount of raw data and covers similar ground:

It’s difficult to give a direct answer… it depends on the topic, what data we can get a hold of, and whether that data can help us bring clarity to the thing we’re trying to explain.

Digging for data takes time and doesn’t always yield fruit. Raw data usually comes in drastically different formats and structure and takes work to process and understand.

I think we’ll be collecting as much raw data and we can handle. We’ll have to focus in on the stuff that we think can add the most to our reporting

Both of those answers speak more to the ‘longitudinal’ issues of data journalism than any definition. How will resources and editorial line impact on the way you use data? How long can you stick to a Data Driven approach when resources and editorial line don’t let you gather and develop databases of raw data?  For what it’s worth, I think Bell’s comments about the structure of team tell us more about where Vox are going, alluding to a more visual, editorially responsive mode.


I’m excited to see what Vox come up with. As much as anything else, because what they come up with will excite others – they will be saying we want data journalism like VOX.  As much as Meyer might be the motivation, Vox and their ilk are now the dominant blueprint.

For me, Vox’s position underlines the importance of Meyer as a reference point; common ground on which to start the conversation and not much else. We can’t say that Vox would be any more or less Meyersian in its data journalism.  At best it means I don’t know where you are going but I do know where you are coming from. 

In helping me understand what data journalism is for Vox, that’s as much as I can ask for.