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January 20 2011

08:00

A university without walls

This post forms part of the Carnival of Journalism, whose theme this month is universities’ roles in their local community.

In traditional journalism the concept of community is a broad one, typically used when the speaker really means ‘audience’, or ‘market’.

In a networked age, however, a community is an asset: it is a much more significant source of information than in other media; an active producer of content; and, perhaps most importantly, at the heart of any online distribution system.

You can see this at work in some of the most successful content startups of the internet era – Boing Boing, The Huffington Post, Slashdot – and even in mainstream outlets such as The Guardian, with, for example, its productive community around the Data Blog.

Any fledgling online journalism operation which is not based on a distinct community is, to my thinking, simply inefficient – and any journalism course that features an online element should be built on communities – should be linking in to the communities that surround it.

Teaching community-driven journalism

My own experience is that leaving the walls of academia behind and hosting classes wherever the community meets can make an enormous difference. In my MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, for example, the very first week is not about newsgathering or blogging or anything to do with content: it’s about community, and identifying which one the students are going to serve.

To that end students spend their induction week attending the local Social Media Cafe, meeting local bloggers and understanding that particular community (one of whom this year suggested the idea that led to Birmingham Budget Cuts). We hold open classes in a city centre coffee shop so that people from Birmingham can drop in: when we talked about online journalism and the law, there were bloggers, former newspaper editors, and a photographer whose contributions turned the event into something unlike anything you’d see in a classroom.

And students are sent out to explore the community as part of learning about blogging, or encouraged to base themselves physically in the communities they serve. Andy Brightwell and Jon Hickman’s hyperlocal Grounds blog is a good example, run out of another city centre coffee shop in their patch.

In my online journalism classes at City University in London, meanwhile (which are sadly too big to fit in a coffee shop) I am currently asking students to put together a community strategy as one of their two assignments. The idea is to get them to think about how they can produce better journalism – that is also more widely read – by thinking explicitly about how to involve a community in its production.

Community isn’t a postcode

But I’ve also come to believe that we should be as flexible as possible about what we mean by community. The traditional approach has been to assign students to geographical patches – a relic of the commercial imperatives behind print production. Some courses are adapting this to smaller, hyperlocal, patches for their online assessment to keep up with contemporary developments. This is great – but I think it risks missing something else.

One moment that brought this home to me was when – in that very first week – I asked the students what they thought made a community. The response that stuck in my mind most was Alex Gamela‘s: “An enemy”. It illustrates how communities are created by so many things other than location (You could also add “a cause”, “a shared experience”, “a profession”, “a hobby” and others which are listed and explored in the Community part of the BASIC Principles of Online Journalism).

As journalism departments we are particularly weak in seeing community in those terms. One of the reasons Birmingham Budget Cuts is such a great example of community-driven journalism is that it addresses a community of various types: one of location, of profession, and of shared experience and – for the thousands facing redundancy – cause too. It is not your typical hyperlocal blog, but who would argue it does not have a strong proposition at its core?

There’s a further step, too, which requires particular boldness on the part of journalism schools, and innovativeness in assessment methods: we need to be prepared for students to create sites where they don’t create any journalism themselves at all. Instead, they facilitate its production, and host the platform that enables it to happen. In online journalism we might call this a community manager role – which will raise the inevitable questions of ‘Is It Journalism?’ But in traditional journalism, with the journalism being produced by reporters, a very similar role would simply be called being an editor.

PS: I spoke about this theme in Amsterdam last September as part of a presentation on ‘A Journalism Curriculum for the 21st Century’ at the PICNIC festival, organised by the European Journalism Centre. This is embedded below:

Slides can be found below:

July 27 2010

11:15

Reflections on the Birmingham Hacks & Hackers Hackday (#hhhbrum)

map of GP surgeries - first thousand results

Last week I spent a thoroughly fascinating day at a hackday for journalists and web developers organised by Scraperwiki. It’s an experience that every journalist should have, for reasons I’ll explore below but which can be summed up thus: it will challenge the way you approach information as a journalist.

Disappointingly, the mainstream press and broadcast media were represented by only one professional journalist. This may be due to the time of year, but then that didn’t prevent journalists attending last week’s Liverpool event in droves. Senior buy-in is clearly key here – and I fear the Birmingham media are going to left behind if this continues.

Because on the more positive side there was a strong attendance from local bloggers such as Michael Grimes, Andy Brightwell (Podnosh), Clare White (Talk About Local) and Nicola Hughes (Your Local Scientist) – plus Martin Moore from the Media Standards Trust and some journalism students.

How it worked

After some brief scene-setting presentations, and individual expressions of areas of interest, the attendees split into 5 topic-based groups. They were:

  • The data behind the cancellation of Building for Schools projects
  • Leisure facilities in the Midlands.
  • Issues around cervical smear testing
  • Political donations
  • And our group, which decided to take on the broad topic of ‘health’, within the particular context of plans to give spending power to GP consortia.

By the end of the day all groups had results – which I’ll outline at the end of the post – but more interesting to me was the process of developers and journalists working together, and how it changed both camp’s working practices.

The work process

This is a genuinely collaborative process – not the linear editorial-and-production divide that so many journalists are used to.

Developers and journalists are continually asking each other for direction as the project develops: while the developers are shaping data into a format suitable for interpretation, the journalist might be gathering related data to layer on top of it or information that would illuminate or contextualise it.

This made for a lot of hard journalistic work – finding datasets, understanding them, and thinking of the stories within them, particularly with regard to how they connected with other sets of data and how they might be useful for users to interrogate themselves.

It struck me as a different skill to that normally practised by journalists – we were looking not for stories but for ‘nodes’: links between information such as local authority or area codes, school identifiers, and so on. Finding a story in data is relatively easy when compared to a project like this, and it did remind me more of the investigative process than the way a traditional newsroom works.

Team roles

Afterwards I wondered what an effective hackday team might consist of, organisationally. Typically hackdays split people into journalists and coders, but in practice the skillsets are more subtle than that. Being a journalist, for example, doesn’t guarantee that you can find datasets; likewise the range of data we came across made it necessary for someone to keep track of it all (social bookmarking helps) and ensure we avoided distraction – but also were able to adapt and change if a more interesting discovery became possible.

So here is an initial attempt to outline the sort of roles a hackday team might work best with:

  • Coders, obviously – some knowledge of datasets is advantage; having pre-cleaned a dataset even better. For this reason it may be worth using a wiki to lead up to the hackday to identify questions and datasets of interest so that work might be done in advance.
  • A project manager of sorts. Someone to keep track of the focus of the project and the datasets involved or needed (and the progress with those). Again, a wiki might suit this well – or a Posterous blog so that those outside the hackday can more easily comment.
  • Someone with computer assisted reporting (CAR) skills to find datasets.
  • A journalist, blogger or expert who understands the data, e.g. codes, context, etc. – and/or who to speak to to get more data or context
  • Someone to do visualisation. If no one is able, then an alternative might be to assign someone the role of creating the visualisation and as part of that, researching visualisation tools [LINK] and examples.

I’m probably missing roles – particularly within the subtleties of coding – so please post a comment if you can think of others.

What we did

Broadly we had gathered because of a shared interest in health. In discussion we decided that the key topical element was the plan to hand spending power to GP consortia. I’m not sure whether this was too broad a topic or whether that actually made for a longer-term project that we will return to. The initial thought was that we would create a resource that would become increasingly useful as the handover took place.

The first thing we needed was a clean list of all GP practices in GB. By midday Rob Styles had compiled such a list in RDF format, including location, their relationship to the Primary Care Trust (PCT), and their LSOA (Lower Layer Super Output Area) Code. In addition this had a unique URI for each practice code and a URI for each PCT code. These things are important in linking this data to other datasets.

Clare White, meanwhile, was identifying indicators & data to add on, such as life expectancy, income, etc.

Keith Alexander was turning life expectancy into another RDF with area codes as unique URIs, with a view to match to codes from other area using geocoding.

Martin Moore was also tracking down data; Mark Bentley tracked down PCT and SHA populations; and I used my Twitter network to find other sources, while using advanced search techniques to track down a range of NHS data websites (there are, it appears, a lot), including earnings data and translations of industry jargon. Andrew Mackenzie actually used a telephone, calling people at West Midlands Observatory, getting contextual information and leads for NHS data, and working out ONS subgroup area codes & ONS group areas.

If that paragraph has not completely geeked you out, you’re doing well.

I bookmarked most of the data sources I found at http://delicious.com/paulb/data+health. Here are just a selection:

The results

By the end of the day we had a national map of all 8,000 GP practices (the first 1,000 shown in the image above) – quite an achievement in itself, but not headline-grabbing yet. To give us an editorial angle for the end-of-day presentations, Rob searched for a spreadsheet of mental health prevalence and came up with the headlines that Manchester was the most ‘phobic’ place in Britain, and the Isle of Wight the least.

The next step would be to add GP population information (taken from an FOI response on What Do They Know) and Quality and Outcomes Framework data (scraped from the GP practice results database). There may be ways to match results from the GMC database of medical practitioners to practices too, while FOI requests could add more specific information, and I’ve since been sent links to other potentially interesting datasets.

The Scraperwiki blog gives more detail on what the other projects produced – all of them were hugely impressive. Andy Brightwell blogged about their leisure data project – which “hoped to find out more about the relationship between population density, deprivation and the provision of leisure facilities” here.

Both links provide further insight into the possibilities of data journalism in just one day.

Thankfully, it’s not going to be just one day. Podnosh have already organised a Speed Data event, and there are further hack days planned for Birmingham – specifically around health – by Talis and NHSlocal.

July 03 2010

13:42

Using data to scrutinise local swimming facilities (MA Online Journalism multimedia projects pt3)

(Read part 1 here and part 2 here)

The third student to catch the data journalism bug was Andy Brightwell. Through his earlier reporting on swimming pool facilities in Birmingham, Andy had developed an interest in the issue, and wanted to use data journalism techniques to dig further.

The result was a standalone site – Where Can We Swim? – which documented exactly how he did that digging, and presented the results.

He also blogged about the results for social media firm Podnosh, where he has been working.

Andy’s techniques included creating a screen scraper using Yahoo! Pipes and Google Spreadsheets, visualising and mapping opening times, and, of course, some old-fashioned research (a recurring theme in the MA data journalism work).

What is particularly interesting is how Andy shows readers his working – explaining inconsistencies in the data, how it is gathered, and issues with making comparisons. Spreadsheets are embedded.

Instead of ‘not letting the facts get in the way of a good story’, Andy is refusing to let a good story get in the way of the facts: we are invited to build on top of the sterling work that he has done.

His early visualisations, for example, showed that the West Midlands was the worst region for swimming pool provision. Then in a later one:

“By clicking on the visualisation you should be able to see a correlation between demand and supply. In the top left-hand corner click on facility m2/1000 (this shows the amount swimming surface area per 1000 people). Now click on participation rate – and the map looks remarkably similar, with the same dark areas, while the West Midlands is one of the lightest regions. In other words, where there’s the most availability of swimming – in the South West, South East and in East, there are more people swimming.

“Now let’s look at the West Midlands – one of the worst regions for supply and demand … As you can see, it’s Birmingham that’s the worst offender, in fact it’s significantly worse than other regions within the West Midlands.

“Of course there’s a health warning over all of this. The report does point out that, even in Birmingham, supply is able to meet current demand – which sort of contradicts the evidence that superior supply leads to more demand. However, what we can say with reasonable confidence is that with doubts over the 50 metre pool and the only pool to have been rebuilt so far is Harborne, it seems Birmingham does indeed have a long way to go before it has anything like the supply of pools some other parts of England enjoy.”

Video stories, Flash interactivity and mapping the local music scene

Three other MA Online Journalism students developed skills in different areas to add specialist expertise to their broad online journalism toolkit.

Chiara Bolognini refined her Flash skills to produce a website for the Basel Social Media Apero that combined animation, video, and a Twitter feed.

Ruihua Yao explored video and produced a series of video profiles of members of the Chinese community in Birmingham. Ruihua filmed the subject speaking in their native language, then dubbed the video with their stories in English. What emerges is a picture of very highly educated Chinese citizens unable to use their education to contribute to British society.

Natalie Chillington set herself the challenge of creating a live map of upcoming gigs in Birmingham that would automatically update when new entries were added to the Google Doc (which also fed a listings). Both were for a new site covering the music scene in the city, The Music Quarter.

This was a technically ambitious project which hit a number of obstacles along the way. To Natalie’s credit, she overcame all of these to produce something which looks simple, but is actually very complex. This post explains the stages Natalie went through in exploring automatically updated maps.

In the next and final part of this series (live Monday) I’ll be talking about Alex Gamela’s work, which includes a Google map that has had over 80,000 views, a moving Flash interactive, and a piece of multimedia journalism combining video, visualisation and more data journalism.

February 01 2010

08:40

Come to the West Midlands Future of News Group February Meetup

The Future of News gathering first organised by Adam Westbrook has its first West Midlands meetup next week (organised by The Lichfield Blog’s Philip John. I’ll be there, along with leading Portuguese blogger Alex Gamela, Brummie alpha blogger Jon Bounds, Andy Brightwell of Hashbrum and Grounds Birmingham; the UK’s top student blogger Nigel Barlow and Pits n Pots‘ Mike Rawlins, among others.

It’s taking place from 6.45pm on Monday February 8 at Birmingham City University. Places are free but limited – book at http://www.meetup.com/The-West-Midlands-Future-of-News-Group/calendar/12461072/

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