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August 14 2012

14:00

Channel 4 Gives Blanket Coverage to Paralympics, While NBC Falls Short

olympics digital 2012 small.jpg

Later this month, the Paralympics will open at the same London venues as the Olympic Games, and for the first time, will get full-day and prime-time coverage in the U.K.

In 2008, Great Britain and Northern Ireland came in second in the Paralympics medals table with 102, including 42 gold, compared to 47 medals in the Olympics. But the success in the Paralympics was not matched by media coverage.

While the BBC, which held the rights to both games in 2008, aired several hours daily of Olympic action on the main networks, BBC1 or BBC2, their Paralympic broadcasting was limited to highlight shows during the week on BBC2, and live coverage on the weekend.

That imbalance between the major sporting events is about to change in the U.K.

When the Paralympics open on August 29 in London, Channel 4 will carry the broadcasting torch, marking the first time the contract has been split for the two linked Games.

Channel 4 is stripping back its entire schedule, leaving just its evening news and half-hour evening soap opera. The rest will offer 400 hours of estimated broadcasting of the Paralympics.

They have been building up profiles of British Paralympic athletes, challenging disability transport issues in London ahead of the games, offering free phone and tablet apps for following the event and plugging into various social media platforms.

Other networks around the world have signed up to broadcast the games, including China's largest national broadcaster, CCTV, Brazil's Globo TV, and ABC in Australia.

In April, the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) said the 2012 Paralympics would be the most watched ever.

By contrast, NBC is not broadcasting any Paralympic events to U.S. audiences except for a highlights show on September 16 from 2 p.m. to 3.30 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Network is showing the Paralympics for the first time. But the coverage is limited to four, hour-long programs on September 4, 5, 6 and 11, according to Adam Freifeld, vice president of communications for NBC Sports Group, in an email to me.

He added: "This is the first time Paralympic coverage has been available on NBC Sports Network, the cable network that was rebranded earlier this year from VERSUS."

Channel 4's approach to coverage

Rachael Latham competed at the Beijing Paralympics and holds the European record for the 200m butterfly, the world record for 50m butterfly and British record for the 200m backstroke. But, because of injury, she has moved into broadcasting. Channel 4 conducted a talent search for new presenters, recruiting a number of fresh faces from different disability backgrounds, including Latham.

The 22-year-old from Wigan, Lancashire, was born with Erbs Palsy -- paralysis of the arm -- and said the increased coverage will make a difference.

"It is not that prior to Channel 4 winning the broadcasting rights there was bad coverage," she said via email, "It's just that BBC did not show enough. Maybe the BBC thought they knew what the public wanted and served them accordingly, seeing the Paralympics as having minority appeal rather than something in which the public could have a big interest in.

"In 2008 the BBC approached the Paralympics with respect, with most events available to the viewer; however, there was no substantial background or build-up to any of this.

"Channel 4's belief in the Paralympics is reflected in the amount of transmission hours given to the game and it is their biggest focus for the whole summer. The BBC can thrive on the Olympics and Channel 4 can thrive on the Paralympics."

Despite the criticism of NBC's delayed broadcasts of the Olympics, the Games so far have been a hit on both sides of the Atlantic for both NBC and the BBC, and Channel 4 will be hoping that interest will extend to the Paralympic games.

Regular features on "Meet the Superheroes" as well as other documentaries have introduced the athletes to TV audiences like never before, as well as explaining the sometimes complex classification system.

Paralympics lexi 2.jpg

The network is introducing the Lexi Decoder (LEXI) to help explain the different categories according to levels of impairments, developed in cooperation with Paralympic gold medalist Giles Lorig.

Latham said the media is a vital way to spread the word about sport and inspire people to participate, not just watch the Paralympics.

"Paralympic athletes train alongside the Olympic athletes in Britain and train just as hard," she said. "So for the public to build up their respect for Paralympic sport alongside Olympic sport would mean everything to the athletes. It is not Channel 4's job to 'turn round the attitudes' just more 'create an attitude'. I don't think the public has ever been given the chance to care about the Paralympics. At the end of the day, if you aren't given the chance to see something and understand it, you probably won't care, and that relates to all aspects of life.

"Channel 4 is giving the Paralympics the air time it deserves and hopefully by doing so people will watch the athletes and understand the sport so they want to watch it. C4 doesn't need to do anything in particular to change people's attitudes, just by the network broadcasting it for the public to watch will be enough for people to make up their own minds and then potentially positive attitudes will be formed."

Social media coverage

Twitter and social media in general, has formed a massive part of the Olympics so far this year, and Latham said social media will also be a huge part of the Paralympic coverage. Channel 4 has always been keen in getting Twitter and Facebook followings for presenters and reporters, but this is increasing with the Games and promotion of the athletes as well. The free tablet and smartphone apps will also allow live-streamed action.

During the Games, Latham will be the main "mix zone reporter" at the pool, interviewing athletes after their races, as well other presenting duties. She had always set the goal of being in London for the Games, but the injury forced her to turn to presenting from competing. On a personal level, she said she is loving the opportunity.

"C4's goal is to bring Paralympic sport into full public focus before, during and beyond the 2012 Games and to deliver a lasting legacy, including developing public attitudes to disability and disability sport," she said. "If four years down the line, people are excited about the Paralympics as well as the Olympics, that will show C4 has been successful."

Channel 4 set a goal of 50 percent disabled on-screen talent during the Games and searched for new presenters to help towards the target. For the network itself, this is the biggest event in its 30 years, but they could not confirm at the time of writing whether they would bid to broadcast the Rio Paralympics in 2016.

A spokeswoman for the British Paralympic Association said in a statement: "We welcome the increased media interest in the Paralympic Games and we hope that, with the support of the British media in raising the profile of British Paralympic athletes and their phenomenal sporting achievements, the BPA can achieve its vision of positively affecting the way that British society thinks, feels and behaves towards disabled people."

Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.

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April 19 2012

13:34

When data goes bad

Data is so central to the decision-making that shapes our countries, jobs and even personal lives that an increasing amount of data journalism involves scrutinising the problems with the very data itself. Here’s an illustrative list of when bad data becomes the story – and the lessons they can teach data journalists:

Deaths in police custody unrecorded

This investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism demonstrates an important question to ask about data: who decides what gets recorded?

In this case, the BIJ identified “a number of cases not included in the official tally of 16 ‘restraint-related’ deaths in the decade to 2009 … Some cases were not included because the person has not been officially arrested or detained.”

As they explain:

“It turns out the IPCC has a very tight definition of ‘in custody’ –  defined only as when someone has been formally arrested or detained under the mental health act. This does not include people who have died after being in contact with the police.

“There are in fact two lists. The one which includes the widely quoted list of sixteen deaths in custody only records the cases where the person has been arrested or detained under the mental health act. So, an individual who comes into contact with the police – is never arrested or detained – but nonetheless dies after being restrained, is not included in the figures.

“… But even using the IPCC’s tightly drawn definition, the Bureau has identified cases that are still missing.”

Cross-checking the official statistics against wider reports was key technique. As was using the Freedom of Information Act to request the details behind them and the details of those “ who died in circumstances where restraint was used but was not necessarily a direct cause of death”.

Cooking the books on drug-related murders

Drug related murders in Mexico
Cross-checking statistics against reports was also used in this investigation by Diego Valle-Jones into Mexican drug deaths:

“The Acteal massacre committed by paramilitary units with government backing against 45 Tzotzil Indians is missing from the vital statistics database. According to the INEGI there were only 2 deaths during December 1997 in the municipality of Chenalho, where the massacre occurred. What a silly way to avoid recording homicides! Now it is just a question of which data is less corrupt.”

Diego also used the Benford’s Law technique to identify potentially fraudulent data, which was also used to highlight relationships between dodgy company data and real world events such as the dotcom bubble and deregulation.

Poor records mean no checks

Detective Inspector Philip Shakesheff exposed a “gap between [local authority] records and police data”, reported The Sunday Times in a story headlined ‘Care home loses child 130 times‘:

“The true scale of the problem was revealed after a check of records on police computers. For every child officially recorded by local authorities as missing in 2010, another seven were unaccounted for without their absence being noted.”

Why is it important?

“The number who go missing is one of the indicators on which Ofsted judges how well children’s homes are performing and the homes have a legal duty to keep accurate records.

“However, there is evidence some homes are failing to do so. In one case, Ofsted gave a good report to a private children’s home in Worcestershire when police records showed 1,630 missing person reports in five years. Police stationed an officer at the home and pressed Ofsted to look closer. The home was downgraded to inadequate and it later closed.

“The risks of being missing from care are demonstrated by Zoe Thomsett, 17, who was Westminster council’s responsibility. It sent her to a care home in Herefordshire, where she went missing several times, the final time for three days. She had earlier been found at an address in Hereford, but because no record was kept, nobody checked the address. She died there of a drugs overdose.

“The troubled life of Dane Edgar, 14, ended with a drugs overdose at a friend’s house after he repeatedly went missing from a children’s home in Northumberland. Another 14-year-old, James Jordan, was killed when he absconded from care and was the passenger in a stolen car.”

Interests not registered

When there are no formal checks on declarations of interest, how can we rely on it? In Chile, the Ciudadano Inteligente Fundaciondecided to check the Chilean MPs’ register of assets and interests by building a database:

“No-one was analysing this data, so it was incomplete,” explained Felipe Heusser, executive president of the Fundacion. “We used technology to build a database, using a wide range of open data and mapped all the MPs’ interests. From that, we found that nearly 40% of MPs were not disclosing their assets fully.”

The organisation has now launched a database that “enables members of the public to find potential conflicts of interest by analysing the data disclosed through the members’ register of assets.”

Data laundering

Tony Hirst’s post about how dodgy data was “laundered” by Facebook in a consultants report is a good illustration of the need to ‘follow the data’.

We have some dodgy evidence, about which we’re biased, so we give it to an “independent” consultant who re-reports it, albeit with caveats, that we can then report, minus the caveats. Lovely, clean evidence. Our lobbyists can then go to a lazy policy researcher and take this scrubbed evidence, referencing it as finding in the Deloitte report, so that it can make its way into a policy briefing.”

“Things just don’t add up”

In the video below Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation takes the US government to task over the inconsistencies in its transparency agenda, and the flawed data published on its USAspending.gov – so flawed that they launched the Clearspending website to automate and highlight the discrepancy between two sources of the same data:

Key budget decisions made on useless data

Sometimes data might appear to tell an astonishing story, but this turns out to be a mistake – and that mistake itself leads you to something much more newsworthy, as Channel 4′s FactCheck found when it started trying to find out if councils had been cutting spending on Sure Start children’s centres:

“That ought to be fairly straightforward, as all councils by law have to fill in something called a Section 251 workbook detailing how much they are spending on various services for young people.

“… Brent Council in north London appeared to have slashed its funding by nearly 90 per cent, something that seemed strange, as we hadn’t heard an outcry from local parents.

“The council swiftly admitted making an accounting error – to the tune of a staggering £6m.”

And they weren’t the only ones. In fact, the Department for Education  admitted the numbers were “not very accurate”:

“So to recap, these spending figures don’t actually reflect the real amount of money spent; figures from different councils are not comparable with each other; spending in one year can’t be compared usefully with other years; and the government doesn’t propose to audit the figures or correct them when they’re wrong.”

This was particularly important because the S251 form “is the document the government uses to reallocate funding from council-run schools to its flagship academies.”:

“The Local Government Association (LGA) says less than £250m should be swiped from council budgets and given to academies, while the government wants to cut more than £1bn, prompting accusations that it is overfunding its favoured schools to the detriment of thousands of other children.

“Many councils’ complaints, made plain in responses to an ongoing government consultation, hinge on DfE’s use of S251, a document it has variously described as “unaudited”, “flawed” and”not fit for purpose”.

No data is still a story

Sticking with education, the TES reports on the outcome of an FOI request on the experience of Ofsted inspectors:

“[Stephen] Ball submitted a Freedom of Information request, asking how many HMIs had experience of being a secondary head, and how many of those had led an outstanding school. The answer? Ofsted “does not hold the details”.

““Secondary heads and academy principals need to be reassured that their work is judged by people who understand its complexity,” Mr Ball said. “Training as a good head of department or a primary school leader on the framework is no longer adequate. Secondary heads don’t fear judgement, but they expect to be judged by people who have experience as well as a theoretical training. After all, a working knowledge of the highway code doesn’t qualify you to become a driving examiner.”

“… Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s new chief inspector, has already argued publicly that raw data are a key factor in assessing a school’s performance. By not providing the facts to back up its boasts about the expertise of its inspectors, many heads will remain sceptical of the watchdog’s claims.”

Men aren’t as tall as they say they are

To round off, here’s a quirky piece of data journalism by dating site OkCupid, which looked at the height of its members and found an interesting pattern:

Male height distribution on OKCupid

 

“The male heights on OkCupid very nearly follow the expected normal distribution—except the whole thing is shifted to the right of where it should be.

“Almost universally guys like to add a couple inches. You can also see a more subtle vanity at work: starting at roughly 5′ 8″, the top of the dotted curve tilts even further rightward. This means that guys as they get closer to six feet round up a bit more than usual, stretching for that coveted psychological benchmark.”

Do you know of any other examples of bad data forming the basis of a story? Please post a comment – I’m collecting examples.

13:34

When data goes bad

Data is so central to the decision-making that shapes our countries, jobs and even personal lives that an increasing amount of data journalism involves scrutinising the problems with the very data itself. Here’s an illustrative list of when bad data becomes the story – and the lessons they can teach data journalists:

Deaths in police custody unrecorded

This investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism demonstrates an important question to ask about data: who decides what gets recorded?

In this case, the BIJ identified “a number of cases not included in the official tally of 16 ‘restraint-related’ deaths in the decade to 2009 … Some cases were not included because the person has not been officially arrested or detained.”

As they explain:

“It turns out the IPCC has a very tight definition of ‘in custody’ –  defined only as when someone has been formally arrested or detained under the mental health act. This does not include people who have died after being in contact with the police.

“There are in fact two lists. The one which includes the widely quoted list of sixteen deaths in custody only records the cases where the person has been arrested or detained under the mental health act. So, an individual who comes into contact with the police – is never arrested or detained – but nonetheless dies after being restrained, is not included in the figures.

“… But even using the IPCC’s tightly drawn definition, the Bureau has identified cases that are still missing.”

Cross-checking the official statistics against wider reports was key technique. As was using the Freedom of Information Act to request the details behind them and the details of those “ who died in circumstances where restraint was used but was not necessarily a direct cause of death”.

Cooking the books on drug-related murders

Drug related murders in Mexico
Cross-checking statistics against reports was also used in this investigation by Diego Valle-Jones into Mexican drug deaths:

“The Acteal massacre committed by paramilitary units with government backing against 45 Tzotzil Indians is missing from the vital statistics database. According to the INEGI there were only 2 deaths during December 1997 in the municipality of Chenalho, where the massacre occurred. What a silly way to avoid recording homicides! Now it is just a question of which data is less corrupt.”

Diego also used the Benford’s Law technique to identify potentially fraudulent data, which was also used to highlight relationships between dodgy company data and real world events such as the dotcom bubble and deregulation.

Poor records mean no checks

Detective Inspector Philip Shakesheff exposed a “gap between [local authority] records and police data”, reported The Sunday Times in a story headlined ‘Care home loses child 130 times‘:

“The true scale of the problem was revealed after a check of records on police computers. For every child officially recorded by local authorities as missing in 2010, another seven were unaccounted for without their absence being noted.”

Why is it important?

“The number who go missing is one of the indicators on which Ofsted judges how well children’s homes are performing and the homes have a legal duty to keep accurate records.

“However, there is evidence some homes are failing to do so. In one case, Ofsted gave a good report to a private children’s home in Worcestershire when police records showed 1,630 missing person reports in five years. Police stationed an officer at the home and pressed Ofsted to look closer. The home was downgraded to inadequate and it later closed.

“The risks of being missing from care are demonstrated by Zoe Thomsett, 17, who was Westminster council’s responsibility. It sent her to a care home in Herefordshire, where she went missing several times, the final time for three days. She had earlier been found at an address in Hereford, but because no record was kept, nobody checked the address. She died there of a drugs overdose.

“The troubled life of Dane Edgar, 14, ended with a drugs overdose at a friend’s house after he repeatedly went missing from a children’s home in Northumberland. Another 14-year-old, James Jordan, was killed when he absconded from care and was the passenger in a stolen car.”

Interests not registered

When there are no formal checks on declarations of interest, how can we rely on it? In Chile, the Ciudadano Inteligente Fundaciondecided to check the Chilean MPs’ register of assets and interests by building a database:

“No-one was analysing this data, so it was incomplete,” explained Felipe Heusser, executive president of the Fundacion. “We used technology to build a database, using a wide range of open data and mapped all the MPs’ interests. From that, we found that nearly 40% of MPs were not disclosing their assets fully.”

The organisation has now launched a database that “enables members of the public to find potential conflicts of interest by analysing the data disclosed through the members’ register of assets.”

Data laundering

Tony Hirst’s post about how dodgy data was “laundered” by Facebook in a consultants report is a good illustration of the need to ‘follow the data’.

We have some dodgy evidence, about which we’re biased, so we give it to an “independent” consultant who re-reports it, albeit with caveats, that we can then report, minus the caveats. Lovely, clean evidence. Our lobbyists can then go to a lazy policy researcher and take this scrubbed evidence, referencing it as finding in the Deloitte report, so that it can make its way into a policy briefing.”

“Things just don’t add up”

In the video below Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation takes the US government to task over the inconsistencies in its transparency agenda, and the flawed data published on its USAspending.gov – so flawed that they launched the Clearspending website to automate and highlight the discrepancy between two sources of the same data:

Key budget decisions made on useless data

Sometimes data might appear to tell an astonishing story, but this turns out to be a mistake – and that mistake itself leads you to something much more newsworthy, as Channel 4′s FactCheck found when it started trying to find out if councils had been cutting spending on Sure Start children’s centres:

“That ought to be fairly straightforward, as all councils by law have to fill in something called a Section 251 workbook detailing how much they are spending on various services for young people.

“… Brent Council in north London appeared to have slashed its funding by nearly 90 per cent, something that seemed strange, as we hadn’t heard an outcry from local parents.

“The council swiftly admitted making an accounting error – to the tune of a staggering £6m.”

And they weren’t the only ones. In fact, the Department for Education  admitted the numbers were “not very accurate”:

“So to recap, these spending figures don’t actually reflect the real amount of money spent; figures from different councils are not comparable with each other; spending in one year can’t be compared usefully with other years; and the government doesn’t propose to audit the figures or correct them when they’re wrong.”

This was particularly important because the S251 form “is the document the government uses to reallocate funding from council-run schools to its flagship academies.”:

“The Local Government Association (LGA) says less than £250m should be swiped from council budgets and given to academies, while the government wants to cut more than £1bn, prompting accusations that it is overfunding its favoured schools to the detriment of thousands of other children.

“Many councils’ complaints, made plain in responses to an ongoing government consultation, hinge on DfE’s use of S251, a document it has variously described as “unaudited”, “flawed” and”not fit for purpose”.

No data is still a story

Sticking with education, the TES reports on the outcome of an FOI request on the experience of Ofsted inspectors:

“[Stephen] Ball submitted a Freedom of Information request, asking how many HMIs had experience of being a secondary head, and how many of those had led an outstanding school. The answer? Ofsted “does not hold the details”.

““Secondary heads and academy principals need to be reassured that their work is judged by people who understand its complexity,” Mr Ball said. “Training as a good head of department or a primary school leader on the framework is no longer adequate. Secondary heads don’t fear judgement, but they expect to be judged by people who have experience as well as a theoretical training. After all, a working knowledge of the highway code doesn’t qualify you to become a driving examiner.”

“… Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s new chief inspector, has already argued publicly that raw data are a key factor in assessing a school’s performance. By not providing the facts to back up its boasts about the expertise of its inspectors, many heads will remain sceptical of the watchdog’s claims.”

Men aren’t as tall as they say they are

To round off, here’s a quirky piece of data journalism by dating site OkCupid, which looked at the height of its members and found an interesting pattern:

Male height distribution on OKCupid

 

“The male heights on OkCupid very nearly follow the expected normal distribution—except the whole thing is shifted to the right of where it should be.

“Almost universally guys like to add a couple inches. You can also see a more subtle vanity at work: starting at roughly 5′ 8″, the top of the dotted curve tilts even further rightward. This means that guys as they get closer to six feet round up a bit more than usual, stretching for that coveted psychological benchmark.”

Do you know of any other examples of bad data forming the basis of a story? Please post a comment – I’m collecting examples.

13:17

The newsonomics of risking it all

Alfredo Corchado was used to getting mortal threats.

He received three in Mexico, but now he was in a Laredo bar, north of the border.

You better stop what you’re doing, or you’ll end with a bullet in your head and your body in a vat of acid, he was told. And then we’ll deliver the bones to your family in El Paso.

It was a chilling warning, or at least we’d expect it to put a chill into Corchado. An investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News (and a former Nieman Fellow), he’s been covering the ravages of drug trafficking for years, much to the concern of his parents living, as the traffickers plainly know, in El Paso. Yet Corchado goes on with his work — as do Adela Navarro Bello of Tijuana’s Zeta news magazine, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Ramita Navai of the U.K.’s Channel 4. As Navarro Bello explained of her paper’s coverage of the drug trafficking that has consumed at 50,000 Mexican lives, “If we don’t publish this information, we are part of the problem.” (Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz has captured Zeta’s struggle — including the murder of two of its journalists — with a new movie.)

Each is an investigative reporter who put their lives on the line to reveal stories they think readers must know about. They spoke on the “When the Story Bites Back” panel this weekend, at UC Berkeley, part of the sixth annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium (live blogging of the conference, here, with a #Logan12 Twitter feed).

That panel and the entire spirited weekend, organized and led by esteemed investigative producer Lowell Bergman, tells us a fair amount about the business of journalism. Though it is not — like most of my work — concerned with the dollars and cents of the business, in its very essence, it describes why the current crazy-quilt economics of the business matters. Funding the journalism business isn’t like funding Sears and Kodak (“The newsonomics of the long good-bye”) or other fading institutions. It’s not even about saving a perhaps-vital American industry, like the auto industry.

It’s about keeping a lifeline of funding open so that our best reporters can do their jobs.

I’ll call it the newsonomics of risking it all because that’s what these reporters do. Many of the other Logan participants and attendees, thankfully, do less life-threatening work. Yet those represented at the conference — from ProPublica, the Washington Post, and New York Times to ABC, NBC, and NPR — are among the cream of the crop of investigative work and produce work with real public interest impact.

As we endlessly debate pay models, whether or not to work with Facebook, how to deal with Apple and Amazon and multi-platform journalism, the Logan Symposium is good tonic — certainly for those of us who attended, but really for all of us who know why this business matters to democracy. Whether and how the economics of the new news business work out isn’t an arcane question; it’s central to our collective future. The value of good, deep reporting is truly priceless.

So what about the state of investigative reporting? Look at the glass as half full and half cloudy.

What emerged from the conference, surprising to some, is that national investigative reporting is keeping its head above water. Both NBC and ABC talked about their expansions in the investigative area, while companies like NPR and Bloomberg have put new resources in as well. Units at the Post, L.A. Times, and New York Times may not be growing much, but seem to be sustaining themselves, for now.

“For now” is an important qualifier, and New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet’s opening interview at Logan, in its over-the-top self-assurance, bothered many of the conference participants with whom I talked.

Washington Post investigative editor Jeff Leen suggested that there were 200 investigative reporters paid by news media in the U.S., which I calculate as one for every 1.5 million Americans. That’s not a ratio that’s going to hold many big institutions — government, business, labor — to account. Maybe that’s why as Logan participant and new-media vet Neil Budde tweeted, “How many times will ‘existential’ be used this weekend? I think count is six so far.”

Importantly, it is largely the largest news media — mainly national and global ones — that continue to put money into investigative work; these are the Digital Dozen companies I identified in my Newsonomics book. For them, as NBC senior executive producer David Corvo put it, investigative work is a “differentiator,” important to distinguishing big news brands from one another in the digital age.

What’s going on regionally is more of a patchwork.

Dozens of people like the Logan family are using their wealth to fund investigative enterprises from coast to coast, most with little fanfare. The Knight Foundation, represented at the conference by its senior advisor and grant-giver extraordinaire Eric Newton, has put $20 million into investigative journalism. With the decline in newspaper budgets, and thus in funding of investigative teams at many regional papers, such private funding has been a lifeline, though there’s a profound sense that significantly less in-depth work is being done at former powerhouse regional papers.

This Logan conference lacked the always-odd spontaneity of a Julian Assange appearance, but it offered intriguing emphases:

  • Front and center, though not appearing in person was Rupert Murdoch. After screening “Murdoch’s Scandal,” Bergman’s Frontline documentary that aired March 27, “The Murdoch Effect: News At Any Price,” made for a raucous panel. Milly Dowler attorney Mark Lewis told how the phone hacking scandal had consumed his life and spoke of the “commercial despotism of Murdochracy” in the U.K., given the News Corp. CEO’s multi-party, decades-long influence. Big questions: What next, and if and how this tale plays out in the U.S.
  • “If it’s not on TV, the American public doesn’t know it,” observed Diana Henriques, the New York Times financial investigative reporter. Yes, we may be on the brink of this multi-platform age, where old newspapers like the Times and the Journal do video alongside print, but still — in terms of notice and public action — there’s nothing like the impact of TV documentary.
  • This is a generational challenge. Journalism has always had its challenges, but never has there been more uncertainty about how one generation can pass along its best practices to the next. Through that foundation funding, a couple of dozen younger journalists and students had their way paid into the conference. Surveying the group on the last day, Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, summed his baby-boomer generation’s role: “I’m a bridge — we’re all bridges to the future.”

Bridging is, in part, what Lowell Bergman’s program does. UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program is a partner in the new Collaboration Central project, along with PBS MediaShift. With new funding, IRP will soon move into a new permanent office. It provides lots of training and fellowships, bringing along new generations to work alongside people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bergman, whose career has spanned from early Ramparts through CBS, The New York Times, and Frontline, and who was played by Al Pacino in the tobacco industry exposé The Insider.

Bergman paid tribute to his one-time CBS colleague Mike Wallace, underscoring Wallace’s storied tenacity. That tenacity, based on Wallace’s fierce journalistic power (highlighted at CBS, in story and video), is what it took a non-journalist to highlight in Berkeley.

Jules Kroll, who led the invention of the modern intelligence and security industry, gave the trade good, pointed advice. Saying he had heard a lot of journalists talking about how beleaguered they are, he noted, “You have a big impact.” His shared his inside view of the power of a good investigation. Colloquial translation: Stop whining and get on with it.

And that’s always good advice. As ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg aptly said, “They were whining in 1989, when times were good.” That’s true. There may be more to whine about these days than in 1989, but the power of great public service work, sometimes when lives are on the line, is one of the things that must propel the trade forward.

Photo of Alfredo Corchado by the U.S. embassy in Paraguay used under a Creative Commons license.

09:08

When data goes bad

Incorrect-statistics

Image by Lauren York

Data is so central to the decision-making that shapes our countries, jobs and even personal lives that an increasing amount of data journalism involves scrutinising the problems with the very data itself. Here’s an illustrative list of when bad data becomes the story – and the lessons they can teach data journalists:

Deaths in police custody unrecorded

This investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism demonstrates an important question to ask about data: who decides what gets recorded?

In this case, the BIJ identified “a number of cases not included in the official tally of 16 ‘restraint-related’ deaths in the decade to 2009 … Some cases were not included because the person has not been officially arrested or detained.”

As they explain:

“It turns out the IPCC has a very tight definition of ‘in custody’ –  defined only as when someone has been formally arrested or detained under the mental health act. This does not include people who have died after being in contact with the police.

“There are in fact two lists. The one which includes the widely quoted list of sixteen deaths in custody only records the cases where the person has been arrested or detained under the mental health act. So, an individual who comes into contact with the police – is never arrested or detained – but nonetheless dies after being restrained, is not included in the figures.

“… But even using the IPCC’s tightly drawn definition, the Bureau has identified cases that are still missing.”

Cross-checking the official statistics against wider reports was key technique. As was using the Freedom of Information Act to request the details behind them and the details of those “ who died in circumstances where restraint was used but was not necessarily a direct cause of death”.

Cooking the books on drug-related murders

Drug related murders in Mexico
Cross-checking statistics against reports was also used in this investigation by Diego Valle-Jones into Mexican drug deaths:

“The Acteal massacre committed by paramilitary units with government backing against 45 Tzotzil Indians is missing from the vital statistics database. According to the INEGI there were only 2 deaths during December 1997 in the municipality of Chenalho, where the massacre occurred. What a silly way to avoid recording homicides! Now it is just a question of which data is less corrupt.”

Diego also used the Benford’s Law technique to identify potentially fraudulent data, which was also used to highlight relationships between dodgy company data and real world events such as the dotcom bubble and deregulation.

Poor records mean no checks

Detective Inspector Philip Shakesheff exposed a “gap between [local authority] records and police data”, reported The Sunday Times in a story headlined ‘Care home loses child 130 times‘:

“The true scale of the problem was revealed after a check of records on police computers. For every child officially recorded by local authorities as missing in 2010, another seven were unaccounted for without their absence being noted.”

Why is it important?

“The number who go missing is one of the indicators on which Ofsted judges how well children’s homes are performing and the homes have a legal duty to keep accurate records.

“However, there is evidence some homes are failing to do so. In one case, Ofsted gave a good report to a private children’s home in Worcestershire when police records showed 1,630 missing person reports in five years. Police stationed an officer at the home and pressed Ofsted to look closer. The home was downgraded to inadequate and it later closed.

“The risks of being missing from care are demonstrated by Zoe Thomsett, 17, who was Westminster council’s responsibility. It sent her to a care home in Herefordshire, where she went missing several times, the final time for three days. She had earlier been found at an address in Hereford, but because no record was kept, nobody checked the address. She died there of a drugs overdose.

“The troubled life of Dane Edgar, 14, ended with a drugs overdose at a friend’s house after he repeatedly went missing from a children’s home in Northumberland. Another 14-year-old, James Jordan, was killed when he absconded from care and was the passenger in a stolen car.”

Interests not registered

When there are no formal checks on declarations of interest, how can we rely on it? In Chile, the Ciudadano Inteligente Fundaciondecided to check the Chilean MPs’ register of assets and interests by building a database:

“No-one was analysing this data, so it was incomplete,” explained Felipe Heusser, executive president of the Fundacion. “We used technology to build a database, using a wide range of open data and mapped all the MPs’ interests. From that, we found that nearly 40% of MPs were not disclosing their assets fully.”

The organisation has now launched a database that “enables members of the public to find potential conflicts of interest by analysing the data disclosed through the members’ register of assets.”

Data laundering

Tony Hirst’s post about how dodgy data was “laundered” by Facebook in a consultants report is a good illustration of the need to ‘follow the data’.

We have some dodgy evidence, about which we’re biased, so we give it to an “independent” consultant who re-reports it, albeit with caveats, that we can then report, minus the caveats. Lovely, clean evidence. Our lobbyists can then go to a lazy policy researcher and take this scrubbed evidence, referencing it as finding in the Deloitte report, so that it can make its way into a policy briefing.”

“Things just don’t add up”

In the video below Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation takes the US government to task over the inconsistencies in its transparency agenda, and the flawed data published on its USAspending.gov – so flawed that they launched the Clearspending website to automate and highlight the discrepancy between two sources of the same data:

Key budget decisions made on useless data

Sometimes data might appear to tell an astonishing story, but this turns out to be a mistake – and that mistake itself leads you to something much more newsworthy, as Channel 4′s FactCheck foundwhen it started trying to find out if councils had been cutting spending on Sure Start children’s centres:

“That ought to be fairly straightforward, as all councils by law have to fill in something called a Section 251 workbook detailing how much they are spending on various services for young people.

“… Brent Council in north London appeared to have slashed its funding by nearly 90 per cent, something that seemed strange, as we hadn’t heard an outcry from local parents.

“The council swiftly admitted making an accounting error – to the tune of a staggering £6m.”

And they weren’t the only ones. In fact, the Department for Education  admitted the numbers were “not very accurate”:

“So to recap, these spending figures don’t actually reflect the real amount of money spent; figures from different councils are not comparable with each other; spending in one year can’t be compared usefully with other years; and the government doesn’t propose to audit the figures or correct them when they’re wrong.”

This was particularly important because the S251 form “is the document the government uses to reallocate funding from council-run schools to its flagship academies.”:

“The Local Government Association (LGA) says less than £250m should be swiped from council budgets and given to academies, while the government wants to cut more than £1bn, prompting accusations that it is overfunding its favoured schools to the detriment of thousands of other children.

“Many councils’ complaints, made plain in responses to an ongoing government consultation, hinge on DfE’s use of S251, a document it has variously described as “unaudited”, “flawed” and”not fit for purpose”.

No data is still a story

Sticking with education, the TES reports on the outcome of an FOI request on the experience of Ofsted inspectors:

“[Stephen] Ball submitted a Freedom of Information request, asking how many HMIs had experience of being a secondary head, and how many of those had led an outstanding school. The answer? Ofsted “does not hold the details”.

““Secondary heads and academy principals need to be reassured that their work is judged by people who understand its complexity,” Mr Ball said. “Training as a good head of department or a primary school leader on the framework is no longer adequate. Secondary heads don’t fear judgement, but they expect to be judged by people who have experience as well as a theoretical training. After all, a working knowledge of the highway code doesn’t qualify you to become a driving examiner.”

“… Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s new chief inspector, has already argued publicly that raw data are a key factor in assessing a school’s performance. By not providing the facts to back up its boasts about the expertise of its inspectors, many heads will remain sceptical of the watchdog’s claims.”

Men aren’t as tall as they say they are

To round off, here’s a quirky piece of data journalism by dating site OkCupid, which looked at the height of its members and found an interesting pattern:

Male height distribution on OKCupid

“The male heights on OkCupid very nearly follow the expected normal distribution—except the whole thing is shifted to the right of where it should be.

“Almost universally guys like to add a couple inches. You can also see a more subtle vanity at work: starting at roughly 5′ 8″, the top of the dotted curve tilts even further rightward. This means that guys as they get closer to six feet round up a bit more than usual, stretching for that coveted psychological benchmark.”

Do you know of any other examples of bad data forming the basis of a story? Please post a comment – I’m collecting examples.

UPDATE (April 20 2012): A useful addition from Simon Rogers: Named and shamed: the worst government annual reports explains why government department spending reports fail to support the Government’s claimed desire for an “army of armchair auditors”, with a list of the worst offenders at the end.

Also:

09:08

When data goes bad

Incorrect-statistics

Image by Lauren York

Data is so central to the decision-making that shapes our countries, jobs and even personal lives that an increasing amount of data journalism involves scrutinising the problems with the very data itself. Here’s an illustrative list of when bad data becomes the story – and the lessons they can teach data journalists:

Deaths in police custody unrecorded

This investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism demonstrates an important question to ask about data: who decides what gets recorded?

In this case, the BIJ identified “a number of cases not included in the official tally of 16 ‘restraint-related’ deaths in the decade to 2009 … Some cases were not included because the person has not been officially arrested or detained.”

As they explain:

“It turns out the IPCC has a very tight definition of ‘in custody’ –  defined only as when someone has been formally arrested or detained under the mental health act. This does not include people who have died after being in contact with the police.

“There are in fact two lists. The one which includes the widely quoted list of sixteen deaths in custody only records the cases where the person has been arrested or detained under the mental health act. So, an individual who comes into contact with the police – is never arrested or detained – but nonetheless dies after being restrained, is not included in the figures.

“… But even using the IPCC’s tightly drawn definition, the Bureau has identified cases that are still missing.”

Cross-checking the official statistics against wider reports was key technique. As was using the Freedom of Information Act to request the details behind them and the details of those “ who died in circumstances where restraint was used but was not necessarily a direct cause of death”.

Cooking the books on drug-related murders

Drug related murders in Mexico
Cross-checking statistics against reports was also used in this investigation by Diego Valle-Jones into Mexican drug deaths:

“The Acteal massacre committed by paramilitary units with government backing against 45 Tzotzil Indians is missing from the vital statistics database. According to the INEGI there were only 2 deaths during December 1997 in the municipality of Chenalho, where the massacre occurred. What a silly way to avoid recording homicides! Now it is just a question of which data is less corrupt.”

Diego also used the Benford’s Law technique to identify potentially fraudulent data, which was also used to highlight relationships between dodgy company data and real world events such as the dotcom bubble and deregulation.

Poor records mean no checks

Detective Inspector Philip Shakesheff exposed a “gap between [local authority] records and police data”, reported The Sunday Times in a story headlined ‘Care home loses child 130 times‘:

“The true scale of the problem was revealed after a check of records on police computers. For every child officially recorded by local authorities as missing in 2010, another seven were unaccounted for without their absence being noted.”

Why is it important?

“The number who go missing is one of the indicators on which Ofsted judges how well children’s homes are performing and the homes have a legal duty to keep accurate records.

“However, there is evidence some homes are failing to do so. In one case, Ofsted gave a good report to a private children’s home in Worcestershire when police records showed 1,630 missing person reports in five years. Police stationed an officer at the home and pressed Ofsted to look closer. The home was downgraded to inadequate and it later closed.

“The risks of being missing from care are demonstrated by Zoe Thomsett, 17, who was Westminster council’s responsibility. It sent her to a care home in Herefordshire, where she went missing several times, the final time for three days. She had earlier been found at an address in Hereford, but because no record was kept, nobody checked the address. She died there of a drugs overdose.

“The troubled life of Dane Edgar, 14, ended with a drugs overdose at a friend’s house after he repeatedly went missing from a children’s home in Northumberland. Another 14-year-old, James Jordan, was killed when he absconded from care and was the passenger in a stolen car.”

Interests not registered

When there are no formal checks on declarations of interest, how can we rely on it? In Chile, the Ciudadano Inteligente Fundaciondecided to check the Chilean MPs’ register of assets and interests by building a database:

“No-one was analysing this data, so it was incomplete,” explained Felipe Heusser, executive president of the Fundacion. “We used technology to build a database, using a wide range of open data and mapped all the MPs’ interests. From that, we found that nearly 40% of MPs were not disclosing their assets fully.”

The organisation has now launched a database that “enables members of the public to find potential conflicts of interest by analysing the data disclosed through the members’ register of assets.”

Data laundering

Tony Hirst’s post about how dodgy data was “laundered” by Facebook in a consultants report is a good illustration of the need to ‘follow the data’.

We have some dodgy evidence, about which we’re biased, so we give it to an “independent” consultant who re-reports it, albeit with caveats, that we can then report, minus the caveats. Lovely, clean evidence. Our lobbyists can then go to a lazy policy researcher and take this scrubbed evidence, referencing it as finding in the Deloitte report, so that it can make its way into a policy briefing.”

“Things just don’t add up”

In the video below Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation takes the US government to task over the inconsistencies in its transparency agenda, and the flawed data published on its USAspending.gov – so flawed that they launched the Clearspending website to automate and highlight the discrepancy between two sources of the same data:

Key budget decisions made on useless data

Sometimes data might appear to tell an astonishing story, but this turns out to be a mistake – and that mistake itself leads you to something much more newsworthy, as Channel 4′s FactCheck foundwhen it started trying to find out if councils had been cutting spending on Sure Start children’s centres:

“That ought to be fairly straightforward, as all councils by law have to fill in something called a Section 251 workbook detailing how much they are spending on various services for young people.

“… Brent Council in north London appeared to have slashed its funding by nearly 90 per cent, something that seemed strange, as we hadn’t heard an outcry from local parents.

“The council swiftly admitted making an accounting error – to the tune of a staggering £6m.”

And they weren’t the only ones. In fact, the Department for Education  admitted the numbers were “not very accurate”:

“So to recap, these spending figures don’t actually reflect the real amount of money spent; figures from different councils are not comparable with each other; spending in one year can’t be compared usefully with other years; and the government doesn’t propose to audit the figures or correct them when they’re wrong.”

This was particularly important because the S251 form “is the document the government uses to reallocate funding from council-run schools to its flagship academies.”:

“The Local Government Association (LGA) says less than £250m should be swiped from council budgets and given to academies, while the government wants to cut more than £1bn, prompting accusations that it is overfunding its favoured schools to the detriment of thousands of other children.

“Many councils’ complaints, made plain in responses to an ongoing government consultation, hinge on DfE’s use of S251, a document it has variously described as “unaudited”, “flawed” and”not fit for purpose”.

No data is still a story

Sticking with education, the TES reports on the outcome of an FOI request on the experience of Ofsted inspectors:

“[Stephen] Ball submitted a Freedom of Information request, asking how many HMIs had experience of being a secondary head, and how many of those had led an outstanding school. The answer? Ofsted “does not hold the details”.

““Secondary heads and academy principals need to be reassured that their work is judged by people who understand its complexity,” Mr Ball said. “Training as a good head of department or a primary school leader on the framework is no longer adequate. Secondary heads don’t fear judgement, but they expect to be judged by people who have experience as well as a theoretical training. After all, a working knowledge of the highway code doesn’t qualify you to become a driving examiner.”

“… Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s new chief inspector, has already argued publicly that raw data are a key factor in assessing a school’s performance. By not providing the facts to back up its boasts about the expertise of its inspectors, many heads will remain sceptical of the watchdog’s claims.”

Men aren’t as tall as they say they are

To round off, here’s a quirky piece of data journalism by dating site OkCupid, which looked at the height of its members and found an interesting pattern:

Male height distribution on OKCupid

“The male heights on OkCupid very nearly follow the expected normal distribution—except the whole thing is shifted to the right of where it should be.

“Almost universally guys like to add a couple inches. You can also see a more subtle vanity at work: starting at roughly 5′ 8″, the top of the dotted curve tilts even further rightward. This means that guys as they get closer to six feet round up a bit more than usual, stretching for that coveted psychological benchmark.”

Do you know of any other examples of bad data forming the basis of a story? Please post a comment – I’m collecting examples.

UPDATE (April 20 2012): A useful addition from Simon Rogers: Named and shamed: the worst government annual reports explains why government department spending reports fail to support the Government’s claimed desire for an “army of armchair auditors”, with a list of the worst offenders at the end.

Also:


Filed under: online journalism Tagged: bad data, benford's law, BIJ, bureau of investigative journalism, Channel 4, Chile, Ciudadano Inteligente Fundacion, Clearspending, data laundering, dating, Deaths in custody, ellen miller, FactCheck, Felipe Heusser, height, IPCC, Lauren York, missing children, OKCupid, Philip Shakesheff, register of interests, S251, sex trafficking, simon rogers, sunday times, sunlight foundation, tony hirst
09:08

When data goes bad

Incorrect-statistics

Image by Lauren York

Data is so central to the decision-making that shapes our countries, jobs and even personal lives that an increasing amount of data journalism involves scrutinising the problems with the very data itself. Here’s an illustrative list of when bad data becomes the story – and the lessons they can teach data journalists:

Deaths in police custody unrecorded

This investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism demonstrates an important question to ask about data: who decides what gets recorded?

In this case, the BIJ identified “a number of cases not included in the official tally of 16 ‘restraint-related’ deaths in the decade to 2009 … Some cases were not included because the person has not been officially arrested or detained.”

As they explain:

“It turns out the IPCC has a very tight definition of ‘in custody’ –  defined only as when someone has been formally arrested or detained under the mental health act. This does not include people who have died after being in contact with the police.

“There are in fact two lists. The one which includes the widely quoted list of sixteen deaths in custody only records the cases where the person has been arrested or detained under the mental health act. So, an individual who comes into contact with the police – is never arrested or detained – but nonetheless dies after being restrained, is not included in the figures.

“… But even using the IPCC’s tightly drawn definition, the Bureau has identified cases that are still missing.”

Cross-checking the official statistics against wider reports was key technique. As was using the Freedom of Information Act to request the details behind them and the details of those “ who died in circumstances where restraint was used but was not necessarily a direct cause of death”.

Cooking the books on drug-related murders

Drug related murders in Mexico
Cross-checking statistics against reports was also used in this investigation by Diego Valle-Jones into Mexican drug deaths:

“The Acteal massacre committed by paramilitary units with government backing against 45 Tzotzil Indians is missing from the vital statistics database. According to the INEGI there were only 2 deaths during December 1997 in the municipality of Chenalho, where the massacre occurred. What a silly way to avoid recording homicides! Now it is just a question of which data is less corrupt.”

Diego also used the Benford’s Law technique to identify potentially fraudulent data, which was also used to highlight relationships between dodgy company data and real world events such as the dotcom bubble and deregulation.

Poor records mean no checks

Detective Inspector Philip Shakesheff exposed a “gap between [local authority] records and police data”, reported The Sunday Times in a story headlined ‘Care home loses child 130 times‘:

“The true scale of the problem was revealed after a check of records on police computers. For every child officially recorded by local authorities as missing in 2010, another seven were unaccounted for without their absence being noted.”

Why is it important?

“The number who go missing is one of the indicators on which Ofsted judges how well children’s homes are performing and the homes have a legal duty to keep accurate records.

“However, there is evidence some homes are failing to do so. In one case, Ofsted gave a good report to a private children’s home in Worcestershire when police records showed 1,630 missing person reports in five years. Police stationed an officer at the home and pressed Ofsted to look closer. The home was downgraded to inadequate and it later closed.

“The risks of being missing from care are demonstrated by Zoe Thomsett, 17, who was Westminster council’s responsibility. It sent her to a care home in Herefordshire, where she went missing several times, the final time for three days. She had earlier been found at an address in Hereford, but because no record was kept, nobody checked the address. She died there of a drugs overdose.

“The troubled life of Dane Edgar, 14, ended with a drugs overdose at a friend’s house after he repeatedly went missing from a children’s home in Northumberland. Another 14-year-old, James Jordan, was killed when he absconded from care and was the passenger in a stolen car.”

Interests not registered

When there are no formal checks on declarations of interest, how can we rely on it? In Chile, the Ciudadano Inteligente Fundaciondecided to check the Chilean MPs’ register of assets and interests by building a database:

“No-one was analysing this data, so it was incomplete,” explained Felipe Heusser, executive president of the Fundacion. “We used technology to build a database, using a wide range of open data and mapped all the MPs’ interests. From that, we found that nearly 40% of MPs were not disclosing their assets fully.”

The organisation has now launched a database that “enables members of the public to find potential conflicts of interest by analysing the data disclosed through the members’ register of assets.”

Data laundering

Tony Hirst’s post about how dodgy data was “laundered” by Facebook in a consultants report is a good illustration of the need to ‘follow the data’.

We have some dodgy evidence, about which we’re biased, so we give it to an “independent” consultant who re-reports it, albeit with caveats, that we can then report, minus the caveats. Lovely, clean evidence. Our lobbyists can then go to a lazy policy researcher and take this scrubbed evidence, referencing it as finding in the Deloitte report, so that it can make its way into a policy briefing.”

“Things just don’t add up”

In the video below Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation takes the US government to task over the inconsistencies in its transparency agenda, and the flawed data published on its USAspending.gov – so flawed that they launched the Clearspending website to automate and highlight the discrepancy between two sources of the same data:

Key budget decisions made on useless data

Sometimes data might appear to tell an astonishing story, but this turns out to be a mistake – and that mistake itself leads you to something much more newsworthy, as Channel 4′s FactCheck foundwhen it started trying to find out if councils had been cutting spending on Sure Start children’s centres:

“That ought to be fairly straightforward, as all councils by law have to fill in something called a Section 251 workbook detailing how much they are spending on various services for young people.

“… Brent Council in north London appeared to have slashed its funding by nearly 90 per cent, something that seemed strange, as we hadn’t heard an outcry from local parents.

“The council swiftly admitted making an accounting error – to the tune of a staggering £6m.”

And they weren’t the only ones. In fact, the Department for Education  admitted the numbers were “not very accurate”:

“So to recap, these spending figures don’t actually reflect the real amount of money spent; figures from different councils are not comparable with each other; spending in one year can’t be compared usefully with other years; and the government doesn’t propose to audit the figures or correct them when they’re wrong.”

This was particularly important because the S251 form “is the document the government uses to reallocate funding from council-run schools to its flagship academies.”:

“The Local Government Association (LGA) says less than £250m should be swiped from council budgets and given to academies, while the government wants to cut more than £1bn, prompting accusations that it is overfunding its favoured schools to the detriment of thousands of other children.

“Many councils’ complaints, made plain in responses to an ongoing government consultation, hinge on DfE’s use of S251, a document it has variously described as “unaudited”, “flawed” and”not fit for purpose”.

No data is still a story

Sticking with education, the TES reports on the outcome of an FOI request on the experience of Ofsted inspectors:

“[Stephen] Ball submitted a Freedom of Information request, asking how many HMIs had experience of being a secondary head, and how many of those had led an outstanding school. The answer? Ofsted “does not hold the details”.

““Secondary heads and academy principals need to be reassured that their work is judged by people who understand its complexity,” Mr Ball said. “Training as a good head of department or a primary school leader on the framework is no longer adequate. Secondary heads don’t fear judgement, but they expect to be judged by people who have experience as well as a theoretical training. After all, a working knowledge of the highway code doesn’t qualify you to become a driving examiner.”

“… Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s new chief inspector, has already argued publicly that raw data are a key factor in assessing a school’s performance. By not providing the facts to back up its boasts about the expertise of its inspectors, many heads will remain sceptical of the watchdog’s claims.”

Men aren’t as tall as they say they are

To round off, here’s a quirky piece of data journalism by dating site OkCupid, which looked at the height of its members and found an interesting pattern:

Male height distribution on OKCupid

“The male heights on OkCupid very nearly follow the expected normal distribution—except the whole thing is shifted to the right of where it should be.

“Almost universally guys like to add a couple inches. You can also see a more subtle vanity at work: starting at roughly 5′ 8″, the top of the dotted curve tilts even further rightward. This means that guys as they get closer to six feet round up a bit more than usual, stretching for that coveted psychological benchmark.”

Do you know of any other examples of bad data forming the basis of a story? Please post a comment – I’m collecting examples.

UPDATE (April 20 2012): A useful addition from Simon Rogers: Named and shamed: the worst government annual reports explains why government department spending reports fail to support the Government’s claimed desire for an “army of armchair auditors”, with a list of the worst offenders at the end.

Also:


Filed under: online journalism Tagged: bad data, benford's law, BIJ, bureau of investigative journalism, Channel 4, Chile, Ciudadano Inteligente Fundacion, Clearspending, data laundering, dating, Deaths in custody, ellen miller, FactCheck, Felipe Heusser, height, IPCC, Lauren York, missing children, OKCupid, Philip Shakesheff, register of interests, S251, sex trafficking, simon rogers, sunday times, sunlight foundation, tony hirst

July 27 2011

15:16

The Frightening, Real-World Strength of Channel 4's 'Sweatshop' Game

Screen shot 2011-07-18 at 1.50.07 PM.png

Sweatshop is a new browser game, developed by Littleloud for Channel 4 Education, in which players fill the role of a factory floor manager in a developing nation. Taking design cues from the tower defense genre, the game tasks you with placing skilled workers and child laborers along a conveyor belt. It's also one of the most compelling and effective political games I've seen in recent years.

Orders for different kinds of garments -- including hats, shirts, bags and shoes -- come down the line, and laborers assemble these products at varying speeds according to their specialty (or lack thereof, in the case of the children). For each completed garment, the player receives a small amount of cash that is then reinvested into hiring more workers or purchasing support items such as water coolers, fans and portable toilets. Some support items increase the speed or profitability of workers within their zone of effect, while others are required to prevent their inevitable exhaustion and (later in the game) bodily harm.

Over the course of 30 stages, players are scored on the efficiency and, ultimately, character of their management decisions. This is reinforced by a trophy system, a karma meter, and a version of the classic shoulder angel/devil duo: a pitiable Child working in the factory and the comically inhumane Boss.

The Child, who is always placed on the line for free at the beginning of each stage, explains how new support items can be used to help keep workers safe. In between stages, the Child presents brief factoids on sweatshop labor around the world. The Boss harangues players at the beginning and end of each work day, only taking a break from shouting and spewing his bad-taste humor to take phone calls from the pompous fashion industry moguls who send in orders.

A full-featured political game

Littleloud and Channel 4 previously worked together on Bow Street Runner and last year's The Curfew. The latter was essentially an interactive drama that depicts the dangers of a potential future police state in the U.K., written by comics author (and game journalism alumnus) Kieron Gillen. Because The Curfew only featured mini-games tangentially related to its full-motion video acting, I didn't know what (or how much) to expect from Sweatshop. What I found was one of the most subtle and full-featured political games that I've come across in the past few years.

Screen shot 2011-07-18 at 1.30.22 PM.png

For American readers who aren't exactly sure how Channel 4 works, it was the fourth state-owned broadcaster established in the United Kingdom. Channel 4 commissions all of its programming from external companies, meaning its content has often been eclectic and cutting-edge, and over the years it has established the "4" brand as a significant name in culture and entertainment. Channel 4 Education, the department that published Sweatshop, is primarily tasked with providing entertaining pedagogical content to U.K. teenagers. Each year, C4E picks themes especially relevant to contemporary teens and invites indie games developers from around the United Kingdom to a pitch session.

"Sweatshop was Littleloud's pitch for a game about the fashion industry, one of the key topics suggested by the broadcaster for its 2011 slate," said Simon Parkin, the game's designer, writer, and producer. "As young people generally have limited disposable income, they are likely to buy cheap, fashionable clothes from high street retailers who drive down their prices by employing sweatshop labor."

During the first five to ten levels of the game, play isn't particularly difficult enough to raise any obvious alarms about the unfair labor practices that become necessary evils in sweatshop economics. As Parkin explained, "There's no leap of abstraction to view workers as 'towers' working on targets when they enter their 'area of effect.'" (In fact, the pairing of theme and play here is so strong that you might not even notice that it's a tower defense game at first.)

Screen shot 2011-07-18 at 12.16.15 PM.png

But that isn't the extent of the game's argument. For this early phase of Sweatshop, the factoid text bubbles at the score screen deliver most of the crucial information about sweatshop practices. If the game stopped here, it would be comparable to PETA's Mama Kills Animals; the latter doesn't actually encapsulate its social message about the inhumanity of factory farming in play itself, relying on external links and short documentary clips.

Increasingly complex

But Sweatshop is a game that, in accordance with the genre conventions of tower defense, becomes gradually more and more complex to control over time. As its play deepens, so too does its procedural rhetoric.

The first thing players will notice is that, in order to attain gold medals on each stage, they must almost constantly run the conveyor belt at double speed. At this pace, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep on top of worker fatigue and a proper mix of skilled labor for each type of garment.

My first "a-ha" moment came when I realized that I could nab a gold medal on many levels -- and minimize the amount of clicking and thinking I needed to do -- simply by covering the belt in child labor, rather than planning for and maintaining a large force of skilled workers. These workers are cheap and replaceable, meaning they also contribute to build speed and a high "money saved" score at the end of a level.

Of course, you'll still end up scoring closer to 100 percent if you replay a level many times to figure out the ideal build order for skilled workers. But why would you, if you can attain a satisfactory score with so much less effort?

The next layer of the game's rhetoric unfolds more slowly. The fact is that you can't really convey the extent of the hardships faced during a long, underpaying shift on a factory line in any medium. (You could craft a time-accurate simulation, but it would be difficult to rope many into playing it.) Instead, Sweatshop's strategy is to pull you into the antagonist's mindset; it forces you into the cold logic of sweatshop management and leaves you to reflect on your own descent into it. In the design of Sweatshop, Parkin and the others at Littleloud struck upon what Ian Bogost calls "tight coupling." According to Parkin:

It was one of those rare cases where the mechanics and the message seemed to align neatly, and once we began speaking to experts in the field of sweatshop labor it became clear that there was a huge amount of relevant content that we could bake into the game mechanics.

Baking in real-world content

Essentially, the game begins as a cartoon sketch of factory labor. You don't need to worry about worker fatigue, safety and morale. But Littleloud gradually "bakes in" more and more of this real-world content. By the end, you need to keep the floor stocked with water coolers, repairmen and fire marshals to keep your workforce alive.

And then, if you're taking the game seriously, you really start to hold it against them. You cut corners, gambling on the low odds that one or two workers outside the repairman's safety zone might harm themselves. Instead of blaming yourself for demanding too much from them, or for not planning ahead in your support item infrastructure, you get angry at your sim-workers for getting tired at the most inopportune times. It is this reduction of human beings to numbers, pesky weak flesh in the way of the profit, that is Sweatshop's frightening strength.

Screen shot 2011-07-18 at 1.30.25 PM.png

Of course, not everything about Sweatshop works as well as it could. For instance: radios, fans and portable toilets all contribute in some way to worker productivity. While we can certainly see the case for radios increasing morale and fans reducing fatigue, one of the game's factoid texts explicitly critiques many sweatshops for not allowing workers to use the restroom in order to maximize productivity. The support items are so helpful that, at the end of any given level, your floor is likely to look a lot more hospitable than most actual sweatshops would be.

Of course, incongruities such as this are only a minor problem. The biggest obstacle I see is that, because it is so full-featured and modeled after commercially viable tower defense games, Sweatshop's rhetoric burns so slowly that many players might never encounter it. Even if you play to the end, it really requires a desire to attain gold medals on your part for much of its skillful mental manipulation to take effect.

That said, Sweatshop's many animated cut scenes and factual texts will arguably hit harder for the intended teenage audience than they did with me. There's not as much of a direct causal link between the game and the practice of buying cheap clothes (the stated target of the project) as one might like, but it's a huge step in the right direction for Littleloud as a studio.

Although Parkin couldn't provide details on the game's budget, he did offer a timetable for the game's production. It was pitched to Channel 4 last summer, but it didn't enter production until January. The development cycle lasted around six months with a small team of four, though other members of the studio provided ongoing support. These rough numbers attest to the thoroughness and determination of both Littleloud and Channel 4, showing what can be done when one waits until a game is fully realized before pushing it to press.

July 24 2011

19:54

How mobile app Waze (Israel) is revolutionizing on the ground reporting and breaking news

Channnel 4 :: While Benjamin Cohen, Channel 4, was in Tel Aviv last week, Israel's Channel 2 News, one of the biggest national news programmes, soft-launched a system called Wazer2. It transforms Waze, a social satellite navigation system that has revolutionised the way that millions of Israelis drive everyday, into a huge recruiting system for citizen journalists, as Elad Simhaioff, the programme’s presenter explained “to be our eyes and ears”.  With Wazer2, the journalists in the newsroom can see where all of their (Waze) users are over the country and can spot the ones who are near to an incident of interest.

Watch the Channel 4 video on YouTube to see how it works:

Continue to read Benjamin Cohen, blogs.channel4.com

May 12 2011

21:22

The ethics of using CCTV footage

A Very Dangerous Doctor is a Channel 4 documentary about David Southall, the controversial doctor who was struck off after “abusing his position” in accusing a mother of killing her son.

The documentary includes CCTV footage of parents smothering their children, filmed covertly as part of Southall’s research into cot deaths. The footage is incredibly distressing – the Independent rightly describe it as “among the most shocking to be shown on TV”. Many tweeted that they were switching off the 100-minute programme – barely ten minutes in – as a result.

The documentary is an excellent piece of work, and worth watching in full – but the CCTV footage raises an old ethical issue in a new context: is it justified?

There is a wealth of literature on the ethics of war reporting: whether distressing images should be shown, and the arguments for and against.

The spread of CCTV and mobile phone footage, its accessibility and its release by police authorities and availability on YouTube, raises similar questions – whether it is footage of a woman throwing her baby on the floor, race attacks, or the death of a protestor.

What are the questions to ask when you are given such footage? What are the ethical issues to balance? And what about this specific example? I’d love to know what you think.

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March 31 2011

19:14

Quicker, smaller, more transparent: What Knight should do next? #JCARN

This month’s Carnival of Journalism is about “driving innovation” – in the wake of the end of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge five year run, among other things. Here’s my take:

Driving innovation needs to be quick

Any innovative idea needs to be able to deploy and iterate quickly – and any scheme to fund innovation needs to support that.

Having been through the Knight News Challenge three times, and reached the final shortlist twice, I was struck each time by how much changed in the online world between the initial submission and final award: If an internet year is worth 4.7 normal years, this process was taking over 3 ‘years’ in internet time. So much changed during that period that by the time I had reached the second or third stage, I wanted to re-write the whole thing.

In contrast, when I entered Channel 4′s 4iP fund (far from perfect, but certainly faster), the time from application to approval was swift. This allowed us to spend a few months working with the funders in addressing the issues the project raised (in Help Me Investigate’s case, largely legal ones) and still being able to start work before the Knight awards had even been shortlisted.

Why the difference? Perhaps because of the next point.

Innovation thrives on limitations

One of the reasons the internet has been so disruptive is that it has lowered the barriers to entry. Multinational media organisations have thrown millions at their own solutions, and yet most of them fail. One of the problems that funds such as Knight’s and Channel 4′s aim to solve is of access to funds – but those funds don’t have to be large.

The median value of a News Challenge award has ranged from $200,000 to $326,000 during its four years of existence, and I suspect one of the problems with Channel 4′s 4iP fund was that its £50m pot was based on television-scale budgets.

You don’t need a large amount of money to innovate online, and the best research and development comes after launch, because you can see how users are using it, and what they tell you they want it to do, or indeed what they build themselves for you.

So instead of funding to the hilt a dozen or so ideas that have to jump through several on-paper hoops to prove their theoretical viability, I would suggest this: spread small amounts of innovation funding wider across 100 pilot projects, and see how they jump through real-life hoops instead.

Projects that jump through those hoops could perhaps then apply to a second fund specifically aimed at the separate problem of scalability. I can speak from experience that running a pilot project gives you a much stronger sense of what you’ll need to do to scale up, than doing the same exercise on paper.

This second fund could even provide rapid access to servers or customer support staff or legal advice while the application is being considered (otherwise the customer experience becomes so bad that by the time funds are released, the project has no users left).

Separating funding innovation from funding scaling allows you to first fund projects that take bigger risks, and generate a bigger pool of innovators with experience of launching and managing an innovative product. And that leads on to the third point:

Support innovation, not projects

Every fund that I’ve been involved in neglected what could have been potentially their biggest value: the process itself of vetting applications and monitoring progress.

(It’s also the biggest source of resentment: there will always be accusations that funds are given to the ‘in-crowd’)

“Driving innovation” should go beyond “funding innovative projects”. Simply opening up the application process so that everyone can see how ideas develop – and what the ‘experts’ think about the detail of proposals – can help contribute to a culture of innovation. Seeing other great ideas being developed makes people feel a whole lot more innovative – and produce better ideas – than getting an opaque email saying “Proposal not accepted” and seeing a disappointing-on-the-surface winners’ list 5 months later.

For the funders this represents a lot of admin, but tough: that’s their job. And there are creative possibilities here: when you move the focus from funding innovative projects to supporting innovation you can start to broaden the focus towards building a network of innovators and aspiring innovators, towards creating a supportive ecology. That also spreads the costs, lowers risk, and increases benefits.

Ultimately, just as networked models are allowing us to revisit ways of doing things without physical limitations, the funding process should reflect that change too. It should be quicker, smaller scale, and more transparent.

March 25 2011

13:50

All the news that’s fit to scrape

Channel 4/Scraperwiki collaboration

There have been quite a few scraping-related stories that I’ve been meaning to blog about – so many I’ve decided to write a round up instead. It demonstrates just the increasing role that scraping is playing in journalism – and the possibilities for those who don’t know them:

Scraping company information

Chris Taggart explains how he built a database of corporations which will be particularly useful to journalists and anyone looking at public spending:

“Let’s have a look at one we did earlier: the Isle of Man (there’s also one for Gibraltar, Ireland, and in the US, the District of Columbia) … In the space of a couple of hours not only have we liberated the data, but both the code and the data are there for anyone else to use too, as well as being imported in OpenCorporates.”

OpenCorporates are also offering a bounty for programmers who can scrape company information from other jurisdictions.

Scraperwiki on the front page of The Guardian…

The Scraperwiki blog gives the story behind a front page investigation by James Ball on lobbyist influence in the UK Parliament:

“James Ball’s story is helped and supported by a ScraperWiki script that took data from registers across parliament that is located on different servers and aggregates them into one source table that can be viewed in a spreadsheet or document.  This is now a living source of data that can be automatically updated.  http://scraperwiki.com/scrapers/all_party_groups/

“Journalists can put down markers that run and update automatically and they can monitor the data over time with the objective of holding ‘power and money’ to account. The added value  of this technique is that in one step the data is represented in a uniform structure and linked to the source thus ensuring its provenance.  The software code that collects the data can be inspected by others in a peer review process to ensure the fidelity of the data.”

…and on Channel 4′s Dispatches

From the Open Knowledge Foundation blog (more on Scraperwiki’s blog):

“ScraperWiki worked with Channel 4 News and Dispatches to make two supporting data visualisations, to help viewers understand what assets the UK Government owns … The first is a bubble chart of what central Government owns. The PDFs were mined by hand (by Nicola) to make the visualisation, and if you drill down you will see an image of the PDF with the source of the data highlighted. That’s quite an innovation – one of the goals of the new data industry is transparency of source. Without knowing the source of data, you can’t fully understand the implications of making a decision based on it.

“The second is a map of brownfield landed owned by local councils in England … The dataset is compiled by the Homes and Communities Agency, who have a goal of improving use of brownfield land to help reduce the housing shortage. It’s quite interesting that a dataset gathered for purposes of developing housing is also useful, as an aside, for measuring what the state owns. It’s that kind of twist of use of data that really requires understanding of the source of the data.

Which chiropractors were making “bogus” claims?

This is an example from last summer. Following the Simon Singh case Simon Perry wrote a script to check which chiropractors were making the same “bogus claims” that Singh was being sued over:

“The BCA web site lists all it’s 1029 members online, including for many of them, about 400 web site URLs. I wrote a quick computer program to download the member details, record them in a database and then download the individual web sites. I then searched the data for the word “colic” and then manually checked each site to verify that the chiropractors were either claiming to treat colic, or implying that chiropractic was an efficacious treatment for it. I found 160 practices in total, with around 500 individual chiropractors.

“The final piece in the puzzle was a simple mail-merge. Not wanting to simultaneously report several quacks to the same Trading Standards office, I limited the mail-merge to one per authority and sent out 84 letters.

“On the 10th, the science blogs went wild when Le Canard Noir published a very amusing email from the McTimoney Chiropractic Association, advising their members to take down their web site. It didn’t matter, I had copies of all the web sites.”

January 07 2011

21:16

New Channel 4 show pokes fun at the news

The UK TV network, Channel 4, has a comedy show starting on January 20 that takes a satirical look at the news.

10 O’Clock Live is described as “an intelligent, informative and – more importantly – funny take on the world of current affairs with a mix of debates, interviews, topical comedy, investigations and opinion pieces.”

The line-up of hosts is impressive: Charlie Brooker, Jimmy Carr, Lauren Laverne and David Mitchell.

The trailer is a delight, especially if you’ve worked in TV news.

December 16 2010

15:04

LIVE: The digital production desk

We’ll have Matt Caines and Nick Petrie from Wannabe Hacks liveblogging for us at news:rewired all day. Follow individual posts on the news:rewired blog for up to date information on all our sessions.

We’ll also have blogging over the course of the day from freelance journalist Rosie Niven.

October 05 2010

12:06

Phone-hacking on Dispatches: a good documentary but not enough new evidence

Following the Twitter conversation around last night’s Channel 4 Dispatches on phone-hacking, Andy Coulson and the News of the World, it seems that for those already following the story there was insufficient new evidence.

But for those less aware of the ongoing claims and the series of investigations that have been conducted, the programme did a great job of putting the most recent claims – sparked by the New York Times’ reports in September – into context with what has gone before, starting with Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire’s arrests in 2006.

Dispatches had comments from Paul McMullen, a journalist working at the News of the World when Coulson joined, and an unidentified source who worked under former editor Coulson while he was deputy editor.

Both alleged that phone-hacking did not begin and end with Goodman and Mulcaire. McMullan told the programme that there was surprise in the newsroom following Goodman’s arrest and sentencing that no one else had been charged.

Of 13 people who worked at the paper during Coulson’s editorship or time as deputy editor and have spoken to Dispatches, not one believes that Goodman was a lone “bad apple”.

Questioning Coulson’s “collective amnesia” and rulings by the Met Police and other industry groups that Goodman and Mulcaire were the only people involved in the practice may not be new, but Dispatches did a good job of raising some new points, as yet largely uncovered by the mainstream media. In particular, the programme spoke with a non-celebrity potential victim of phone-hacking, who explained how difficult it has been to get information from the police and her mobile phone operator to check if she had been hacked.

Concerns were raised by interviewees, including Brian Paddick, who is calling for a judicial review of the Met’s 2006 inquiry, and DCMS select committee member Adam Price, who had suggested that News International’s Rebekah Brooks should be made to give evidence to its phone-hacking inquiry, that whatever the truth behind the allegations about the extend of the practice, the way in which investigations by government and the Metropolitan police have been conducted suggests that the News of the World may be “above the law”.

Tom Watson MP, who worked on the department for culture, media and sport’s select committee inquiry into allegations against the NOTW, told Dispatches that he considered giving up politics after a senior News International journalist told him that he would be pursued by its titles after he called for Tony Blair’s resignation in 2006 because of the support of News International for the then PM.

Watson has now published a letter on his website written to the Prime Minister and asking him to make a statement in parliament this week about the allegations against his communications director Coulson.

Coulson has repeatedly denied knowledge of phone-hacking at the News of the World and told Dispatches he had nothing to add in response to its broadcast.

Lack of press coverage at the time of Goodman’s arrest suggested similar goings-on at other papers, said Dispatches’ host Peter Oborne last night. But given the Daily Mail columnist’s involvement and the featured commentary from former News of the World journalists, Channel 4 and the Guardian, has last night’s broadcast created a more united front amongst the press to investigate its own state of affairs?Similar Posts:



September 28 2010

09:55

Jeremy Hunt: Providing local content should be condition of broadcasters’ licences

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt will say today that he intends to make the provision of local content a condition of the licences given to commercial broadcasters like ITV, Channel 4 and Five.

In a speech today to the Royal Television Society, Hunt will also tell those channels with a public service broadcasting remit (PSBs) that retaining a prime position in the Electronic Programme Guide or future equivalent would depend on their commitment to “content with a social or cultural benefit”.

I will begin the process of redefining public service broadcasting for the digital age by asking Ofcom to look at how we can ensure that enough emphasis is given to the delivery of local content.

Of course not all PSBs will want, or be able, to be local broadcasters. But I’m determined that we should recognise the public value in those that do.

Echoing the sentiments of his party’s ‘big society’ idea, Hunt will warn broadcasters about not investing in local news:

If we remain centralised, top-down and London-centric – in our media provision as in the rest of government – we will fail to reflect the real demand for stronger local identity that has always existed and that new technologies are now allowing us to meet.

Hunt will add that he has been “strongly encouraged by the serious thought that the BBC has been giving to how it might partner with new local media providers”.

He is expected to say that, despite the UK “fast becoming one of the most atomised societies in the world”, those looking back in the future will see its media as “deeply, desperately centralised.”

They will be astonished to find that three out of five programmes made by our public service broadcasters are produced in London.

They will note that there is nothing but national news on most of the main channels, beamed shamelessly from the centre.

And they will discover token regional news broadcasts that have increasingly been stretched across vast geographical areas – with viewers in Weymouth watching the same so-called “local” story as viewers in Oxford. Viewers in Watford watching the same story as viewers in Chelmsford.

Hunt will also set out his vision for local TV provision:

My vision is of a landscape of local TV services broadcasting for as little as one hour a day;

Free to affiliate to one another – formally or informally – in a way that brings down costs;

Free to offer nationwide deals to national advertisers;

Able to piggyback existing national networks – attracting new audiences and benefitting from inherited ones at the same time;

And able to exploit the potential of new platform technologies such as YouView and mobile TV to grow their service and improve their cost-effectiveness.

In June, Hunt scrapped plans for new local news networks set up by the previous government. Hunt called the plans for Independently Funded News Consortia (IFNC) in Tyne Tees and Borders, Scotland, and Wales “misguided” and claimed they “risked turning a whole generation of media companies into subsidy junkies, focusing all their efforts not on attracting viewers but on persuading ministers and regulators to give them more cash”.

Read Jeremy Hunt’s RTS speech in full here (PDF)Similar Posts:



September 07 2010

17:12

Channel 4′s latest web project reinvents quotations for the Twitter age

Quotations are ubiquitous, from Facebook and Twitter to media coverage and watercooler chats. But the experience of finding a quotation online is often messy and reliant on amateurish sites that seem to rely on the same old quotes – and that’s the problem a new Channel 4 project is aiming to fix. By Jemima Kiss


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jemima Kiss, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 2nd September 2010 12.05 UTC

“My favourite quotation is £8 10/- for a second-hand suit,” Spike Milligan once said.

Quotations are ubiquitous, from Facebook and Twitter to media coverage and watercooler chats. But the experience of finding a quotation online is often messy and reliant on amateurish sites that seem to rely on the same old quotes – and that’s the problem a new Channel 4 project is aiming to fix.

New Zealand quotations (1)
Photo by PhillipC on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Quotables wants to reinvent the quotations dictionary. Co-founded by Channel 4 and the Arts Council, there’s a focus on literature but also some priority C4 areas including comedy, news, the arts and independent British cinema. C4′s new media commissioner for factual, Adam Gee, said that despite the number of quotations sites already out there – from Wikiquote and ThinkExist to BrainyQuote and QuotationsBook – there’s room to do much better, because many of those reuse the same databases and rehash the same misattributions and inaccuracies.

Charlie Brooker: “Snakes. They’re like bits of rope, only angrier.”

“We had the realisation that the way we interact with quotes online is really lacking in many respects,” said Gee. “It’s not a fun experience or an easy experience, and when you do find something you have no idea if it is accurate or not. Quotables is starting from a blank sheet, built from the preferences of an active community.”

Oscar Wilde and Socrates will make the cut eventually, but there’s as much of a focus on events, TV and popular culture; the end of Big Brother has been a focus for Channel 4.

Albert Einstein: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

Gee said there are four dimensions to the project. He hopes Quotables will become to quotes what Delicious is to links, a standard utility for saving and sharing. There’s also a buzz element, capturing trends in quotes on different days; Tony Blair was a hot topic yesterday. And over time it value as a reference tool will increase, as will its community.

David Gibson, from the Edinburgh Fringe: “I’m currently dating a couple of anorexics. Two birds, one stone.”

Is the popularity of short quotes a symptom of how the internet is rewiring our brains, impairing our ability to process long-form content? These are 75-word quotes. “By having these nuggets from great works of literature, great speeches, great articles, we’re encouraging the entirety to be read and that’s part of the ongoing programme of functionality. One aspect is we’re building a batch upload process of independent publishers so they can upload a selection of the best quotes from recent publications, and it gets published alongside links to Amazon or their own online shops. But concision is really about encouraging a more considered, careful submission so people don’t submit a whole paragraph – what is the essence you are put across?”

Quotables was conceived and commissioned by Channel 4, built by Mint Digital and co-founded by the Arts Council and Channel 4. Gee describes it as halfway between a standard Channel 4 commission and an investment, more like that of 4ip. The aim is to make Quotables a sustainable, standalone business and it already has an office base and small team in Glasgow. Gee would not say how much had been invested in the project.

Terry Pratchett: “Build a man a fire and he’ll be warm for the night. Set a man on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”

“It’s not extravagant but it’s not tight. And it has been budgeted for the long view. The emphasis is on building a lovely experience and a core of enthusiastic users and around them a community people enjoy being a part of.” He said that as well as advertising, there are plans to help the project sustain itself by adding merchandising – “Moo-style” hard products.

“People have been very generous in sharing the repositories of inspiration,” said Gee. “Quotables has the edge over what’s out there at the moment; the fact you have proper tools for the quotes – the ability to edit tags, the ability to correct things, for finding duplicates, proper attribution and more accuracy. And a system of lists as well as tags so you can keep your own stuff sorted.”

All of which reminds me of a line my Dad used to say was by Virginia Woolf, along the lines of: “Efficiency cuts the grass of the mind to its roots.” I’ve never been able to find it – does anyone know?

There’s more from Quotables on its blog and you can subscribe to daily quotations from Quotables on Twitter.

Woody Allen: “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

• Elsewhere, Channel 4 is working with Six to Start on a project with the working title ABC – Arts Buzz Culture. “It’s an early-warning cultural radar system, particularly picking up on online buzz around discovering and sharing arts and culture events,” said Gee. If you frequently find events are sold out or are over by the time you’ve heard about them, this will be for you. It’s a working prototype, and the design side is being developed with Rob Bevan of XPT. “It’s a difficult design job – you’ve got to make it seem very simple and not overwhelming. The creativity and brilliance of the design is hidden in its simplicity, in many ways.” It’s personalised, social – and due out in 2011.

Dolly Parton: “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb… and I’m also not blonde.”

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April 12 2010

08:29

Live Q&A on careers in TV production

To mark the launch of a new internship scheme, Channel 4 is taking part in a live Q&A session on the Guardian’s Careers website today from 12-3pm.

Jo Taylor, head of learning and 4talent; Alison George, learning and organisational development specialist at Channel 4; and representatives from several independent production companies will be on hand to answer your questions about breaking into the TV industry.

To take part visit the forum at this link.

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March 30 2010

11:53

#askthechancellors: How important was the digital audience in the UK Chancellor debate?

Last night I enjoyed lurking on the Twitter backchannel while watching Channel 4’s Ask the Chancellor debate – trivia mixed with observational insight.

I liked Evening Standard journalist Paul Waugh’s tweet about George Osborne’s ‘invisible pedal’ left-foot habit, as much as the economic 140-character analysis and Channel 4’s live poll via tweets, as the Chancellor hopefuls and incumbent fought it out (Vince Cable was the eventual winner, with 36 per cent; leaving Osborne and Darling with 32 per cent each).

Twitter also gave us an insight into the Channel 4/BBC political debate rivalry – spotted in tweets between Channel 4’s Faisal Islam and Radio 4’s Evan Davis. This, from Islam, for example:

amused by @r4today s licence-fee funded sniffiness about #askthechancellors Obviously nowt to do with this: http://bit.ly/aoc4MH

Probably worth noting this too, spotted via @the_mediablog:

RT @DominicFarrell: Those who will decide the #election were watching Coronation Street #askthechancellors

That was a sentiment supported by this morning’s TV stats: Brand Republic reports that Ask the Chancellors peaked at 2.1 million, while 9 million watched Eastenders.

So how important was this backchannel and the digital audience? That was the question Jim Naughtie posed to POLIS director Charlie Beckett on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme (audio at this link). Beckett said:

I think the real winner (…) despite some of the media cynicism, was in a sense ‘democracy’. I detected a lot of people who were quite pleased to hear a lengthy debate in detail, in public, by these people.

Beckett elaborates here, on his blog:

It all makes for much richer, multi-layered reportage. The TV debate alone would have been worth it. But the fact that tens of thousands of people were taking part reminds us that citizens do care about politics. And they want to be part of reporting the debate as it happens.

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December 21 2009

17:50

BBC News: Gordon Brown agrees to TV election debates

The UK is ready for its first ever televised leader election debates following an agreement between the three main political parties and BBC, Sky and ITV, the BBC reports.

Labour’s Gordon Brown, Conservative leader David Cameron and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg have agreed to go head-to-head in a series of three debates.

Each clash will last about 90 minutes, with ITV’s Alastair Stewart hosting the first and Sky’s Adam Boulton the next.

Full story at this link…

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