An updated timeline of journalism in a digital age.

Early last year I updated my timeline of journalism events in a digital age and I thought it was time to take a look and see what needed to be added.

So I’ve updated it including the following:

  • I’ve added the appearance of Buzzfeed in 2006: Who knew that this viral startup would be thought of the ‘preeminent media company in the future’.  I’ve also added the $50 million dollar investment from earlier this year.
  • The NSA leaks story:  The reach of this story makes it a defining moment for me.  It’s a story that brought security and net neutrality into the newsroom with some excellent (and innovative) storytelling along the way.
  • Jeff Bezos buying the Washington post – media buyouts don’t often break the mould but Bezos putting up $250million of his own money is an interesting one for me.  The fact that it’s the man behind Amazon – considered by many a successful online company  with experience in many of the areas where the media is playing ‘catch-up’.
  • Leaked NYT innovation Report – media orgs will fall on any intel on the industry and their competitors but this leak to Buzzfeed (there they are again) of an internal review of the NYTimes’ digital efforts was as notable for it’s view of who the competition was as it was it’s candid material.
  • The murder of James Foley: Many journalists have died in the process bringing us news from warzones. But the way the video of Foley’s death surfaced and the ensuing debate around how we shared the news (and the video) speaks to the changing way we view news and conflict.

I’m sure there are more and I’m sure that there are some that aren’t so US centric so I’d love to hear your views on what should be included.


Steve Matthewson Head of Business Professional Networks at The Guardian suggested including the closure of the News of the world. I’d considered it but it didn’t feel ‘digital’ enough. However, Steve makes a good point.

So I’ve included it!

Twitter user @sms2sms suggested a number of inclusions, including Flash!

I thought that was a great idea. Even if it was there as a motivation for people to create an alternative, I think Flash has shaped the way we tell multimedia stories online. So it’s in.@sms2sms also suggested Rocketboom, another good idea that’s now in.

American Univ Journo prof Andrew Lih offered:

I’d never heard of it but remember the later ‘clicks and morter’ attempts later on. This is a gem of an example and well worth an inclusion. Also worth a read is John C. Speer’s disseration on the subject.

Am I responsible for a shitty freelance market?

Yesterday I posted about using Medium as a platform for my second year students. In passing I mentioned that Contributoria also looked like a good bet. That led to a brief exchange with Sarah Hartley (editor at Contributoria) which also included Leeds Met uni lecturer Karl Hodge, about how the process of pitching to contributoria could be included in teaching.  That lead to this from freelancer @digitaldjeli (whose website on news from Africa and more  I can recommend btw.)

A fairly lengthy exchange followed which I found a bit frustrating and ill-tempered (I actually said ‘rude’ at the time). I’m sure digitaldjeli thought much the same of me.  But it was food for thought and I wanted to get down a couple of points down. (Yes, it’s my blog and I can ruminate if I want to)

Looking back, the conversation seemed to touch upon a few broad, interrelated points:

Journalism courses (encouraging students to pitch) skew the market  

I wasn’t sure who or what that original tweet was aimed at, so I asked digitaldjeli if it was the fact that it was students pitching:  

I’m not really sure that I like the distinction between students and journalists here.  I expect that mine are both. Or for that matter that all students are carefree with no responsibilities.  As to whether it’s courses like mine that are adding to the weight of the hammer I don’t know.

A brief look through of the figures suggests that there would be around 14-16,000 people studying journalism and information related degrees in the UK( a guesstimate based on figures from the OECD).  That’s not taking into consideration NCTJ type courses etc.  But let’s also factor into that the industry redundancies. Estimates put job losses in papers alone at the 8,000 mark (that was a few years ago). I’d say there were more journalists entering the market than students. But, being fair, across the industry as a whole,  that’s a lot of people that could be fighting to be heard in the freelance market.

All of which suggests a broader point I heard echoed in digitaldjeli’s tweets:

The freelance industry is a in a shitty state, please don’t make it worse

It’s easy to see how that point connects with the first – it can’t support the people already in the market so why flood it with more. In that respect I think it’s appropriate to question if offering the courses we do is unfair on everyone, including those students on a course who might expect to make a living; asking who is taking the risk. But taking the industry as a whole we aren’t great at being fair.

I can be generous and say it’s competitive. But the truth is that people will take whatever edge they can to get ahead; everything from dropping a name, leveraging a contact, citing past employers on bios or paying for a course.  Healthy competition is OK and the great thing about the web is that it means players like contributoria can explore ways to help broaden (and maybe flatten) the playing field. But plenty of people will exploit that. It’s as likely to be a dodgy internship as much as a training course that exploits or closes a door on broader opportunity.

I recognize that the compulsion to analyse the industry and its models to understand sustainability isn’t one that stops with the mainstream parts of the industry. Journalism education and training, in all its forms, is just as much part of that process and  it’s right that we should feel that pressure and be held to account.  The vast majority of people I know in the edu/training sphere care and worry very deeply about that.

I’m certainly not comfortable with the idea of us essentially ring fencing certain aspects of what is essentially an economy; barring one element to protect another. If we do that we have to get into the idea of what makes one lot a journalist and another not. (good luck with that but I really don’t care for the distinction). But maybe a shift in perspective doesn’t hurt.

Expectation or responsibility

It seems that the last 10-15 years of the journalism industry are defined by the concept of expectation. An expectation by some that life will continue, untroubled as it always has. An expectation that the web will make things better. An expectation that there should be special treatment or exceptions made.  I’ve always seen a big part of my job as managing and informing expectation so that people can make informed choices.  But one result of the conversation has been to get me thinking about responsibility. Where does my responsibility for this begin and end?

There doesn’t seem like there is going to be much settling down in the media landscape any time soon and it’s certainly not going to get flatter (or fairer). Asking how we can be more responsible in cultivating that landscape seems a more positive one than finding ways to deal with a set of increasingly conflicting expectations.

The right Medium for student work

I’m in the process of finalizing my course/module  descriptions for this year. In one of my second year modules – the digital landscape –  we are asking the students to produce a piece of multimedia reporting (the other assignment is to work in groups to pitch a media related start-up idea).

I’m pondering the way I get them to ‘submit’ that work.  My gut feeling at the moment is to get them to submit to Medium.

What about a blog?

Across all the digital stuff we do, students are encouraged (or compelled depending on your point of view) to start a blog.  All do and some keep it up. So their own blog is one option. Put work on the blog and then give me the links.

But experience has shown me that often the students will only engage with their blog at the point at which they begin to work an an assignment. That raises two issues:

  1. They don’t really engage with blogging: Some might say that in a social media world blogging is less valuable. I disagree. But I’m also nervous of making it a requirement to blog as it, well takes us back to the main problem of why they are ‘using’ a blog.
  2. Some students will take the position that, because I have asked them to submit on the blog, I’m responsible for telling them how to use a blog.  I become defacto tech support. In principle that’s something I don’t mind but, in general Google faster than me for basic ‘how do I add a link questions’.

We also have a content management system within the department based on Escenic. It’s great and robust but, for a number of reasons, not public facing.  That makes it hard for them to promote their work on Social media. They can link out but not in. I know, I know but there are reasons OK!

In and off the media landscape.

For this module in particular I want the students to engage with working in the broader media landscape. So I’m trying  to balance giving free reign to publish on any platform against the demands for public interaction against practical demands.  Hmmm.

My current thinking is based around the following

  • Restricting choice: It sounds bad I think it would be useful to make a decision that will practically and technically  suit 99% and negotiate with the 1% that want to push the envelope.
  • Visibility of content: Picking a platform for their content which already has a strong(ish) content base will give them something to compare/aspire/compete with.

Bearing all of that in mind, Medium feels like the right choice. I’d very much like students to be doing more with their work.  I’d love them to pitch to sites like Contributoria – and if Contributoria had an open submission (not a criticism at all) then it would be a great alternative.

But as it stands medium seems to have a workable input system. Not too shy of multimedia and there is a ‘content network’ element which I think would be interesting for the students to explore. This is not an either/or situation. Students will still be expected to have blogs and there are other places in the course where design or ‘code’ are more suited. But I’d be interested in what others think.

 After-matter and notes: I should note that when I say submit we do have a process here by which I get students to submit the text of their articles so that we can run them through plagiarism detection software.

After tweeting a link to this post a few people added their thoughts:

Tom Rouse from  echoed my thinking:

Nick Petrie from the Deputy Head of News Development &  also liked the idea

adding that medium simplifies things for them. Daniel Bently from @circa did note the limitations of some of the embedding option, but liked the challenge

Siraj Datoo, Political reporter at BuzzFeed UK, was a bit uncomfortable with having student work online:

 I think there’s a valid point there. Often, for very good reasons, a piece of work may not reflect what a student is capable off. I think we could manage that and there is always the option to remove the work when it has been marked. Siraj also made a good point about the way medium uses social media (twitter in particular) to promote your work. I don’t mind that challenge. I think its good for students to consider the social media impact of their work. Alex Howard, columnist  , made a good point about taking a more fundamental approach:

I have some real sympathy for this approach but in the context of this module it’s outside the learning outcomes. But not for other parts of the course.  One reservation I do have is asking students to pay. That’s not a general issue – it’s what pays my mortgage. But this would be paying specifically to submit an assignment.  Still, Alex makes a good point when he notes…

The difference between pro and amatuer? 90 degrees

A tweet from the @themediabrief caught my eye today:

Made me smile.

‘Holding the camera the right way’ is a bit of an issue for me. In one of my modules I set shooting video as a little test and it was enough to get you a fail.  But as @davidwrightdop pointed out, in the days of Vine and Instagram, does it make one bit of difference? 

In my defence, the end result of the test was meant to be uploaded to YouTube; a shame not to use all the space available. So it’s not a ‘blanket ban’

I’m sure academics could have a field day with a ‘chicken and egg’ type discussion about the impact of one medium and another, remediation etc. etc.  Clearly the impact of social media has more of an impact than TV.  So perhaps this is a tipping point:

In some respects it’s already happening. With more consumption on mobile, especially of video, the shape of TV has already changed. Of course, TV was just as influenced by film aspect ratio when it was designed for mass use, so what goes around.

You’re holding it wrong for a journalist.

What interests me more is the definitional nature of the debate:  Of course anyone who knows anything about video would shoot the right way.  Wouldn’t they?  The difference in this case between amateur and pro is literally a 90 degree turn. (hasn’t that always been the way of it!)

Even more telling is that it’s a definition that lives and breathes in the way we hold kit.  Imagine that debate being levelled at the way you hold a pencil to take notes. That says more about the way we define ourselves than anything else.

After thought: An easy solution to this is to put the camera lens in the bottom corner of the phone rather than the top. That way if you were ‘holding it wrong’ you’d always have your hand over the lens!

A quick way to test web content on your mac

If you’re getting into this whole coding journalist and tinkering with HTML and javascript you’ll eventually get to the point where you need a webserver to play with.

Webservers, amongst other things contain the software that enables you to play with more complex scripting, handling ‘requests’ for content rather than simply displaying a file (which is what opening a page in your browser would do without a webserver).   It’s not essential, often your browser will do most of the heavy lifting.  But having a webserver on your own machine that you can use as your own private development environment can be really useful.

If you’re using a mac  then you can turn any folder into a webserver for basic javascript and html stuff,  by navigating to the folder in terminal app and typing the following line of code :

python -m SimpleHTTPServer 8000

It uses webserver (the simpleHTTP bit) in the mac’s built-in version of the  Python programming language.   It’s nothing fancy but it does the job.

To stop the server, return to the terminal app  just press CTRL+C in the terminal. That will stop the service.

How that might work in practice

Here’s a quick example of how that might work:

  • Create a new folder called website in your documents folder
  • open TextEdit (in the applications folder)
  • Click New Document
  • Before you type anything else select Format > Make Plain Text
  • Cut and paste the following  code into the editor
<!doctype html>
<html lang="en">
<title>A basic html Holding page</title>
<h1>Your webserver is working</h1>
  • Save this file into the webserver folder with the filename index.html (webservers are setup to look for that filename by default)
  • Open the Terminal application (applications/utilities)
  • In the terminal window  navigate to your folder:
cd documents/website

then type:

python -m SimpleHTTPServer 8000

the 8000 is the port number. If you run into problems then you could try changing this as it usually means you’re already running something using that port.  If you’re trying this for the first time you’re unlikely to need to do this.

  • Open your browser and go to – http://localhost:8000. You should see a very dull page with the text ‘Your webserver is working’
  • When you’re done, go back to the terminal app window and press CTRL+C to stop the webserver

When you’re running code it’s worth checking back on the terminal app window. The webserver tracks output and will stream a log of what’s going on. Useful to track down mistakes like missing files and incorrect links (tip: look for code 404, message File not found)

No Mac?

If you want something a bit more complex/flexible or if you don’t have a mac, you can download ‘stand-alone’ webservers that will install and run on your machine. One of the more popular ones is MAMP although the move to a more pro model has lead some to look at alternative like ampps.  They are all pretty much the same and solid next step if you get fired up by this journo coder stuff.

I know many people will know this already but its one of those little things that can often slip off the radar. I hope it’s useful.


Who takes the risk in changing journalism?

I’m spending the next few days in a research symposium about journalism. Lots of great people with interesting things to say about the changing face and challenges for journalism.  I’m not going to go into too much detail about what’s being discussed -that’s partly because a lot of it is related to ongoing research and the usual form, and often contractual obligation, is stuff doesn’t make it out until its been in a journal (I know, don’t get me started on that one).  But regardless of the topic one of consistent questions has been how we and students respond to this.

One example of this was a conversation around entrepreneurial journalism.

The idea that we as j-schools, should be encouraging more innovative and entrepreneurial thinking is not new.  A number of schools now have modules and courses exploring just that.  But how we ‘sell’ that has been and remains a tricky proposition when the demands of the industry we serve are set against an education market ‘disrupted’ by the same things.

Like most universities in the UK we are coming to the end of our ‘open days’. They are a chance for prospective students to see the campus, meet the staff. Well, I say students; a big part of open days is for parents.

I find that it’s often quite hard to talk to the prospective students as you’re answering questions from parents. How many modules? What’s your contact time? What are your employment statistics? I’m not being critical of this at all – who wouldn’t want to be  sure that they are getting the best. The best experience and the best value.  But I does feel like the questions that editors and accrediting bodies ask me – how many hours do they go to court? Can they do shorthand? Can they do facebook?

Under the idea of a service economy (serving students and industry) J-Education is not just being asked make a lot of commitments. We are being asked for guarantees!

I was pondering that during the presentations when we talked about entrepreneurship and innovation in journalism and it struck me how much I feel we are at (or very, very close to) an inflection point when it comes to the value proposition for developing journalism education.

The truth is entrepreneurship is about risk.  I have enough crappy motivational tweets appearing in my timeline about ‘daring to fail’ to know that.  But I’m across two industries  – education and journalism –  that don’t do risk well.

It’s clear that most of the journalism industry isn’t prepared to take that risk (with notable but not consistent exceptions) The model for the industry is for buy-innovation not nurturing it. Yes, there are some exceptions but lets not kid ourselves that they are the norm  (yet). That’s a culture that reaches across all aspects of an organisations work including training.

That’s why, in the same way media has shifted the responsibility (and risk) for training and skills to education, we now see the demands for a more innovative and entrepreneurial journalist are placed at educations door.

At the same time education is coming to terms with a market driven model – compare-the-market parents looking at our stats.  That culture doesn’t really suit risk.  I couldn’t sell a journalism course on the kind of failure stats we see in startups these days.

Theres the decision driving me to feeling close to the inflection point. Which of those ‘markets’ is the ball and chain?  Which one of those is going to drag me down past viable? As a J-school educator, how do I balance the demands of industry to deliver what they tell me they want with the demands of consumers for guarantees of a return on investment?

My gut reaction is that the response to industry is pretty simple – we are not going to take risks on your behalf unless you invest.   But that’s the easy bit. It leave us with more to  do in educating students to the idea of risk and the broader landscape of opportunity that digital offers.  Risk and opportunity – not easy terms.

I happen to think there is no better place to take a risk than university – independent thinking and challenge are what we are supposed to do.  I also believe that there is no better industry in which risk can pay off – innovation is really valued, even if (or perhaps because) it doesn’t really know what to do with it – everyone wants a pet unicorn even if they don’t know how to look after it!

But it does feel like we are getting to a point where, to really enable us to make good on that opportunity,  J-schools are going to have to make a  choice.  Journalism education is  already at a point where we are thinking about how we unhitch ourselves from many of the structure that some believe  makes them the de-facto suppliers of skilled workers for industry.  A position that I’ve always thought of as moving from  giving them what they want to what they need.

But that feels like the easy part.  When it comes to selling the alternative it’s easy marketing speak to say opportunities but it’s risk – plain and simple.

That feels like unchartered territory for all of us and I wonder if it should and why.

Image from Ben Sutherland  on Flickr 

What do journalists use instagram for?

Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember 
Involve me, I’ll understand

I’m not one for sharing proverbs or pithy statements; ones  that would look great on a poster with some Kittens or shared in a cursive font on Facebook. But the lines above popped into my head as I was reading about Instagram’s  latest update. Instagram is getting new ‘creative’ editing tools.

These aren’t earth shattering; exposure, saturation etc.  But the general consensus (among my social media circle anyway) was that these tools were a great addition not least because it would limit the number of apps journos needed to use to get a good picture.

At a similar time to the chat around Instagram’s new tools, Sarah Marshall, Social media editor at the Wall street journal, posted about some in-house Instagram training. The post is a really valuable round-up of the use Instagram can get in a newsroom.

The conversation around those two stories, got me pondering the broader question of why journalists use these platforms and it boils down, in general, to these two broad areas:

1. It’s a nifty platform to gather and distribute images with the added advantage of having an audience there watching

Why spend money on a media sharing infrastructure when the likes of Instagram and youtube do that for you? In a mobile world, it’s a robust mobile tool that you don’t have to pay for!

This is a growing trend in newsrooms, echoed in the use of things like DropBox and Google Drive. Using free, easily accessible resources to plug the tech and process gaps in newsrooms.

2. It offers access to user generated content

That’s not a groundbreaking observation.  Of course, like any social media network, where the public are so there maybe useful content news orgs can lift create a wider audience for.

These different uses make demands of social media platforms we use. The tension that creates makes for a heady mix of issues.  Professional identity and standards are tested, questioned and sometimes reinforced. Just that idea of using a mobile phone as a tool does that!  At the same time the pressure of sifting through all this material to get that clip that beats the competition to the punch is one that newsrooms feel more each day…how can something so useful be so frustrating?

The conversation around Instagram brought those tensions to the fore in a specific way.   Not only would the new tools make the platform more usable as a tool, it may also help make the content more usable as UGC -As BBC editorial trainer Marc Blank-Settle pointed out (responding to me sharing Sarah’s post)

The general gist of Marc’s point was that the, often indiscriminate, use of the ubiquitous filters and other editing tools on Instagram rendered the content editorially unusable. Marc’s broader point is that a viewer might question the veracity of an image that’s been so obviously edited – if the colours have been changed then what else have they tinkered with? Marc sums it up in a later response to the issue

It’s a fair point. The idea of how much editing should you do on an image is one that has vexed news/doco photographers for ever and a day. Just try talking to a US press photographer about the ethics of posing a shot!

As a ‘trainer’ I have a deal of sympathy with Marc’s view. Training Journo’s to keep to their standards is hard when there are nice toys to play with – especially when the norm is to go ‘express yourself’

Frustration with this kind of thing is something the industry is great at voicing but it’s not so great at articulating the tensions behind the scenes.  We tend to fall back on one of the core uses as a reason – the square aspect ratio or resolution isn’t great or Instagram’s poor search or lack of desktop version means I can’t use it to find pictures easily at work.  But that’s a bit too filtered through a set of local demands. I think that if we want to get the best use of platforms like Instagram then I  think it  really demands that we think critically, and be more open within newsrooms,  about that question of why and how we use it.

That debate is one that’s increasingly important given a growing fixation with ‘native content’. We are being asked to consider ways in which we can bring the production process closer to the consumption process – like creating sites for mobile, on mobiles.  We see some great experiments with creating content specifically for new platforms – stuff that looks like the platform not our website squashed into the space.  But whilst our desire to understand the users and seed the platforms with our content grows is there a risk that we simply open up a wider gap between the two uses?  Are we going to end up contributing the the pool of unusable content? Or is there is an opportunity to take a different approach that unites the two demands?

Educate or emulate?

One observation from those analysisng tweets from the UK riots was how the pictures that were most shared, ones that made it to the top of the retweet  pile, were pictures that resembled news images. In other words, pictures that even though they weren’t created by news orgs, would have happily got the nod from an (picture) editor.

It’s one example, along with the amount of social media traffic that’s driven by news orgs content, that suggests a certain level of ‘news-media literacy’ makes it through into the collective subconscious when it comes to creating and distributing content on social media.  Could journalists do more to ‘educate’ people on Instagram and other platforms as to what constitutes a good picture?

That’s were the pithy proverb came to mind:

Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember 
Involve me, I’ll understand

We know that asking social media for UGC is a frustrating task. Asking for something specific will, more often than not result in a huge amount of unrelated content.; “I asked for flooding pictures not pictures of your wet dog! “ That will never go away. But if one of our motivations for using these platforms, for encouraging journalists to get their content on there, is to help inform and develop new-media literacy, is that such a bad thing.



Voting: A free ticket to the show you never wanted to see

It’s election time. All over the EU people are voting for MEP’s and here in the UK some councils have elections for local councillors.  As per usual the issue of voting (and not voting) dominates the commentsphere.

It’s an issue that has got a bit of momentum in the UK thanks to some celebrity interventions into the debate around the whole idea of voting, particularly the vexed issue of getting young people to vote.

So, its seems like a good time to make a confession – I’m a ‘don’t voter’. There I have said it.   It’s not that I haven’t voted. Or that I will never vote.  When I have nothing to vote for I don’t vote.  From what I can make out, according to much of the commentary I’ve read this morning, this:

  • means I’m apathetic.
  • makes me an idiot
  • makes me selfish – apparently I’m stopping your party getting in
  • makes me selfish – apparently I’m allowing the party you don’t like to get in.
  • means I have never heard of the suffragettes or a number of wars – I’m an ignorant idiot.
  • no better than Russell Brand – and by extension, an idiot
  • makes me responsible for homophobia and wars in far off places, far-right parties in Europe etc.
  • means I have no right to comment on voting politics or anything else until I vote – at least I can be an idiot that gets irony
  • disrespectful of your grandmother, grandfather or whichever relative you found an ‘inspiration’ in your youth

But the truth is that this more than just the process of voting. It’s not just that I can walk up to the booth unmolested – great and powerful as that is. It’s the responsibility to then exercise a choice.  Exercising your right to vote is not enough and whilst it might be respectful of all those who came before, I’d have  thought it was important that we are using and allowed to use that choice ‘responsibly’.

Lets imagine for a minute that inspirational grandma saved up all her life and through her hard won efforts gave me 50 quid to spend (ardent capitalist as she clearly is).  Lets imagine I go to the market with my 50 quid. I get a number of stalls.  Look there’s the regulars selling a pile of shit. Then there are newcomers – smaller and less tricksy, and they have new shit. But, once you get it home and get past the wrapping, oh, it’s the same old shit.

So whichever way I spend my 50 quid I’m still going to have to go home and tell my Gran that I spent that hard earned 50 quid on shit. Or I could just say. ‘you’re all selling shit I’m going to hang on to my 50 quid and spend it when theres something other than shit to buy.

So I voted today – apparently I’m allowed to say all of this because I did vote.   None of the people on the ballot where people I wanted to vote for and there is no way I can express that and get that counted in the same way a vote would be counted – no ‘none of the above’ or minimum vote to validate the abuse of the term ‘mandate’.

So I spoiled my vote.  I scribbled on my ballot paper like 5 year old! You have no idea how angry and depressed that made me feel.

But at least I voted. That’s the important thing right?

Argentina’s Clarín gets to grip with convergence : exploring multilingual social media

The wonders of twitter, tweetdeck and google translate meant that I got an interesting insight into the way Clarín, the biggest newspaper in Argentina,  is approaching the challenge of a converged newsroom.

What caught my eye was a the visualization of the ‘new editorial cycle’ that journalism news site ELDSD posted to twitter. A translated version below.



The process of transition has clearly not been smooth with staff representation voicing concerns of the process In terms of convergence they are familiar debates.

Despite the cod google translate filtering,  it made for an interesting perspective on an ongoing debate. But it also shows that language isn’t always a barrier to using social media.

Translating social media

Twitter has already experimented with translating tweets based during the ousting of Mohammed Morsi last year but some of their tools have it built in.

Tweetdeck, for example, offers a useful translate option


So if you want to broaden your social media reach, don’t be afraid to follow beyond your language barrier.

Finding and mapping the center of your world(ish)

This is the center of Preston.

The center of Preston.
The center of Preston.

No really. The exact center of Preston.

I made that discovery as I pondered a post I saw a little while ago.

The article came from The Londonist, who ran an experiment to find the center or London.  It was a repeat of an experiment they did in 2010, things were a bit make do and mend…

We pasted a map of Greater London onto cardboard, cut out the map, and then tried to balance it on a pin-head. The balance point, also known as the centre of gravity, can be said to be the geometric centre of London. 

But for the update they went a bit more high tech.

Step forward Tom Hoban, who’s now refined the method and thinks he’s found the centre of London to much greater precision. Rather than using cardboard and scissors, Tom traced an electronic map in AutoCAD software. He was then able to find the shape’s centre of gravity digitally, removing the imprecision of our balancing-on-a-pin malarky.

I thought the ‘malarky’ of the pin and card was really nice.  Very hands on. But it got me thinking about how easy it would be to work that out for other places.  (that’s how my brain works)

Find the shape

The first challenge is finding the ‘shapes’ of a city to work with.  In these days of data journalism and digital mapping, I wondered if that kind of ‘data’ existed and it does; kind of. There are plenty of data sets that offer shape files; the data needed to ‘draw’ the shape of a city or (more commonly) electoral ward, county or country.  You see these a lot in visualizations of data like voting records etc. So it was just a case of finding one with about the right detail I needed.

The Office of National statistics maintains quite a nice list of  files with boundary information, which have that data included.  I chose  the Boundaries : County_and_unitary_authorities_(E+W)_2013_Boundaries_(Full_Extent).zip file.

Find the centroid!

As you expect these shapes are not uniform, they are polygons, so it took me a bit of Google work to find that the ‘center of gravity’ of  a polygon is called it’s centroid.

In mathematics and physics, the centroid or geometric center of a two-dimensional region is, informally, the point at which a cardboard cut-out of the region could be perfectly balanced on the tip of a pencil, assuming uniform density and a uniform gravitational field.

So it was a bit of piecing together.  I know you could easily map shape files using Google tools like Google Fusion tables etc. and I know that you can do some clever maths using scripting so the next step was to put it all together with more Google around ‘calculate the centroid of a polygon in Google maps‘.  Which, by a country mile,  is the most technical and intelligent sounding thing I’ve googled in the last 10 year.

Some time later…

Cutting a long Google very short, I ended up recognizing that doing it with Google maps was going to be hard – at least beyond my skills.  But my searching revealed that there was some good mapping software or GIS  available that might do the job. What’s that then

A geographic information system (GIS) lets us visualize, question, analyze, interpret, and understand data to reveal relationships, patterns, and trends.

I ended up using QGIS, an open source mapping program that works on PC and Mac.  I won’t lie, it’s a bit of bind to set up.  But once it’s done you have a pretty powerful set of tools and one that would be worth a look  for people doing a lot of mapping .

What’s great about QGIS is that once the ‘polygons’ are loaded in, it has a very neat menu item that calculates the centroids. Instant centers of all the areas on the map in one click!

Here’s a quick how-to:

This is shape file
This is shape file
  • Download and unzip the mapping data. If you look in the unzipped folder you’ll see a file with a .shp extension. That’s the one we want.
  • Open QGIS


  • Click the Add Vector Layer button or pick Layer > Add Vector layer from the menu
  • Browser to the shape file (.shp) from the unzipped folder and open
  • A nice rendering of the shape file appears similar to the one below.
Don't worry if your colours are different. It's random
Don’t worry if your colours are different. It’s random Contains National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right 2013
  • Make sure the layer you have created is selected and the select Vector > Geometry Tools > Polygon Centroids



The system offers a dialouge box. It wants to save the data as a new file. I saved mine in a new folder called centroids but you can put it where you like.  Make sure you check the Add Results to Canvas option or you won’t see the centers.  The result is something like:

Contains National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right 2013

That’s all the centroids calculated and plotted.

Getting the data on to a google map. 

For a number of reasons I wanted to make sure I could share the results on a google map.  One of the easier ways to to get any complex location data into a google map is to use Google Fusion tables. They play nicely with location information saved as a KML (Keyhole markup language) file.

QGIS makes short work of this.

  • Select the new layer with your centroids in
  • Select Layer > Save As
  • Pick  Keyhole markup language KML from the Format option
  • Select a location and filename to save the content. Make sure you keep the .kml extension.
  • Repeat the process with the original layer (with the local authority areas on it)

The process to get the files in to Google Fusion tables is pretty easy. Here’s a slightly amended version of what Google suggests:

  1. Go to Google Docs. Sign in to your Google Account or create a Google Account if you don’t already have one. (Note that you while can use a Google Apps for your Domain account for Fusion Tables, you will not be able to create maps.)
  2. Click the “Create” button.
  3. Click the “Connect more apps” bar at the bottom of the resulting list.
  4. Type “fusion tables” in the “Search Apps” box and hit the “Enter” key.
  5. Click the blue “+ CONNECT” button, then click the “OK” button in the confirmation dialog box.
  6. Click “Create > Fusion Table (experimental)”.
  7. In the Import new table dialog box, click “Choose File”.
  8. Find the KML file you created from  QGIS
  9. Check that the data is formatted correctly and click “Next”.
  10. Give your table a name and click “Finish”.

Once it’s imported you can click the Map tab and you’ll see the elements mapped (either the outlines of the areas or the dots that represent the centroids.

You can embed the map straight from google fusion tables like this

Or you could use something like the Google Fusion Maps Wizard to mix together layers into one map. Like this:

Once you have it on a map you can also take advantage of the satellite view and the Street view tool on google maps to get a good look at the center of your world.


This may all feel like a sledgehammer to crack a pointless nut! I guess it is. It’s a bit of fun that spiralled. The best I could say is that it falls in to my find a tool that answers a question methodology.  But here’s some observations and what I learned  along the way:

  • The center really does depend on the boundaries you pick. The picture at the start of this post is based on the Urban Audit of Greater cities boundaries for Preston (data). That’s different from the center that the Unitary and Borough boundaries throws up. (that’s in a field just near the M55 junction on the M6)
  • Picking the The Full Extent version of the files does skew things a little as it describes the shape of an area even if some of it stretches into the sea! So the methodology isn’t rock solid on a number of counts
  • There are lots of data sets to play with. Qgis means you could load loads up and compare.
  • Using QGIS ties you to the desktop – not great if you’re in newsroom with locked-down IT.
  • Using QGIS opened my eyes to the power of GIS software in general and how it could be part of a data journalist’s toolkit. But if you’re doing a lot of data mapping (rather than mapping) I do think something like Tableau is the better place to focus your time.

Finally, and most importantly I’m bound to repeat that all of this post contains National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right 2013