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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 25 2010

11:24

Experiments in online journalism

Last month the first submissions by students on the MA in Online Journalism landed on my desk. I had set two assignments. The first was a standard portfolio of online journalism work as part of an ongoing, live news project. But the second was explicitly branded ‘Experimental Portfolio‘ – you can see the brief here. I wanted students to have a space to fail. I had no idea how brave they would be, or how successful. The results, thankfully, surpassed any expectations I had. They included:

There are a range of things that I found positive about the results. Firstly, the sheer variety – students seemed to either instinctively or explicitly choose areas distinct from each other. The resulting reservoir of knowledge and experience, then, has huge promise for moving into the second and final parts of the MA, providing a foundation to learn from each other.

Secondly, by traditional standards a couple of students did indeed ‘fail’ to produce a concrete product. But that was what the brief allowed – in fact, encouraged. They were not assessed on success, but research, reflection and creativity. The most interesting projects were those that did not produce anything other than an incredible amount of learning on the part of the student. In other words, it was about process rather than product, which seems appropriate given the nature of much online journalism.

Process, not product

One of the problems I sought to address with this brief was that students are often result-focused and – like journalists and news organisations themselves – minimise risk in order to maximise efficiency. So the brief took away those incentives and introduced new ones that rewarded risk-taking because, ultimately, MA-level study is as much about testing new ideas as it is about mastering a set of skills and area of knowledge. In addition, the whole portfolio was only worth 20% of their final mark, so the stakes were low.

Some things can be improved. There were 3 areas of assessment – the third, creativity, was sometimes difficult to assess in the absence of any product. There is the creativity of the idea, and how the student tackles setbacks and challenges, but that could be stated more explicitly perhaps.

Secondly, the ‘evaluation’ format would be better replaced by an iterative, blog-as-you-go format which would allow students to tap into existing communities of knowledge, and act as a platform for ongoing feedback. The loop of research-experiment-reflect-research could be integrated into the blog format – perhaps a Tumblelog might be particularly useful here? Or a vlog? Or both?

As always, I’m talking about this in public to invite your own ideas and feedback on whether these ideas are useful, and where they might go next. I’ll be inviting the students to contribute their own thoughts too.

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