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March 30 2011


How Social Media is Being Used in the Scottish Elections

Since Barack Obama successfully tapped into social media during his run to the White House in 2008, every political group has tried to use the digital world to bring in revenue and votes.

This year's Scottish Parliament elections, which take place on May 5, will be the first in that country since Facebook and Twitter came to dominate the social web.

On an institutional level, the Scottish Parliament is the only devolved administration in the United Kingdom to not have a Twitter feed (UKParliament, AssemblyWales, niassembly are the others, along with UKYP and OfficialSYP among youth parliaments).

While Scottish businesses has caught on to the benefits of social media, local media and political parties have been more cautious and uncertain. In a country dominated by newspapers -- 13 paid national daily titles daily for a population of 5.1 million -- old media, and old political strategies, remain king.

Followers Don't Equal Voters

At the political level, there were five elected parties in the Scottish chamber at the time the upcoming election was called: The Scottish National Party (who currently run the minority government), Scottish Labour, Scottish Liberal Democrats, Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Green Party. Only the Conservatives are really right of centre, with the SNP occasionally drifting there. The major split is between nationalists (SNP and Green) and "unionists" (everyone else).

In terms of Twitter followers, as of Tuesday night the SNP is out in front with 2,815 followers, or 36.5 percent of the total of those following a major Scottish political party. Labour is a close second on 32.7 percent (2,521 followers); the LibDems have 12.9 percent (994); the Tories have 9.2 percent (710); and the Greens have 8.7 percent (668).

But followers aren't necessarily voters. And being a digital disciple doesn't make voting easier, especially with so many parties to choose from. Dozens of candidates will be on the proportional representation part of the ballots, as well as six or more in each first-past-the-post constituency.

The bigger problem is connecting to those who are not interested in politics. As an 18-year-old friend explained to me: "The Internet's given us a powerful means of voicing our concerns and opinions, and social media has the added bonus of getting the word out to people you'll likely never meet. But really, nowadays, the only people who vote are those who follow politics, or feel a duty to vote. A lot of people these days frankly don't care because they don't see how it affects them."

Social media allows interaction from a distance, as well as direct contact. It is also immediate and unforgiving, so tracking politicians and parties through the medium is increasing vital.

Compare The Parties

compare.jpgWith that in mind, I recently launched CompareTheParties.co.uk to use social media and policy comparisons to engage voters and, ideally, boost turnout, which dropped in some areas to 33 percent in 2007.

Voter apathy is a major problem across the Western world. In the same way that newspapers have frequently struggled to enthuse readers in the fragmented digital age, politicians have been caught in a cynical era that allows each individual view to trump that of an organized center.

Though it is politically diverse, Scotland is still lagging behind its American cousins in using new media, both in news and in politics. In fact, the SNP is the only party investing a notable amount of effort into social media and online engagement.

The SNP Plan

The SNP has adopted a strategy of trying to elicit contributions from citizens to their political tent through video and pictures.

Kirk Torrance, new media strategist for the SNP, started working for the party in January Screen shot 2011-03-29 at 10.31.47 PM.png2010 after helping incorporate social media into the film industry in London and Los Angeles.

"Perhaps social media has not been as successful in Scotland as in the U.S., but we are miles ahead of what other parties are doing," he said. "We are on par with the Obama campaign and maybe a bit ahead of them now. We really have a five- to ten-year view of this stuff."

Torrance said the party's goal is to enthuse one voter at a time, and let those people engage with their own social networks. By reaching one, you reach many.

"You have a chain reaction possible online," he said. "It's a more efficient way of engaging with people. If you enthuse one person, they can enthuse others."

The SNP strategy is to build towards a vision of Scotland, and ultimately an independent Scotland, by letting each voter define their individual version of the country. It's a hyper-personal strategy that suits new media, but that is also plugged into a central strategic aim of getting votes.

"A lot of people think of social media as some sort of magic bullet, but it comes down to the story you're telling," Torrance said. "Find the emotion in what goes on and enthuse people about how great Scotland could be. The approach we're taking is to build relationships with people on a one-to-one basis."

The digital world has helped entrench the individual as the most important voice in society; hyper-individualism has divided much of the West, and helped unite citizens of the Middle East in town squares. The Scottish elections may, through social media activism, re-coalesce individual Scots around a town square. The square just happens to be an entire nation. And who runs it is up to the voters.

Tristan Stewart-Robertson has written for more than three dozen publications in the U.K., Canada and the U.S. in almost a decade as a reporter. Originally from New Brunswick, Canada, he completed a post-graduate degree in journalism at Cardiff University in 2002 before moving to Scotland. He worked at weekly paper the Barrhead News before moving to the Greenock Telegraph. Now working as a freelance reporter and photojournalist, operating as the W5 Press Agency, he has been published by papers including the Scotsman, Sunday Times-Herald, Toronto Star and the Chronicle-Herald.

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September 27 2010

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September 10 2010


Playing with heat-mapping UK data on OpenHeatMap

heat mapping test />

Last night OpenHeatMap creator Pete Warden announced that the tool now allowed you to visualise UK data. I’ve been gleefully playing with the heat-mapping tool today and thought I’d share some pointers on visualising data on a map.

This is not a tutorial for OpenHeatMap – Pete’s done a great job of that himself (video below) – but rather an outline of the steps to get some map-ready data in the first place.

1. Find a dataset to visualise.

You firstly need data that fits the geographical areas supported by OpenHeatMap (countries, constituencies, local authorities, districts and counties), and which suits geographical visualisation.

My first stop was the data.gov.uk RSS feed to see what recent datasets had been released, but you could also do advanced searches for “unemployment by county” etc. if you are looking for something specific to visualise.

Helpfully, each dataset description includes a field on “Geographical granularity”. This helps you quickly rule out those that only give country-level data (most of them). I ended up discovering the Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics page which allows you to download very specific data. Once on the site’s very helpful data download page I clicked on “Up to 100 indicators” and selected ‘Local authority’ from the first drop-down menu to ensure it matched up to the councils on OpenHeatMap.

I decided to map smoking data, downloaded it, and unzipped it. I then uploaded it to Google Spreadsheets (thankfully, the dataset was not too large).

2. Clarify the data

It’s at this point that the real work begins. Most datasets use a lot of jargon and codes, and you’ll have to spend time decoding those. In this case the zipped file contained a spreadsheet of “meta-data” that explained some of the codes used in the main spreadsheets. That cleared up part of my dataset, but there was a problem. Instead of local authority names, the spreadsheet (as is often the case) used codes.

I started scouring the web for a spreadsheet that might have those codes and what they meant. Eventually I found a page that listed them. Had the information been in a table, or even a list, I could have used the importHTML function in Google Docs (or Excel) to import the list. But it wasn’t, so I had 3 choices:

  • Convert the codes manually into authority names
  • Keep searching to see if I could find the same list in a better format
  • Write a scraper to convert the list on that page into a dataset

I tweeted an appeal for someone to scrape the page (the data was relatively structured – each item was prefixed by a 3-digit number, for example – which should make it easier) and Tom Smith quickly did just that. However, the scraper had for some reason not managed to capture the Scottish codes (possibly because they used the same numbers as the English ones).

Once those codes and associated local authority names were added to my spreadsheet I could convert my own codes to local authority names by using the VLOOKUP formula.

In Google Spreadsheets this means typing something like this into an empty cell to the right of your data: =VLOOKUP(D2,A:B,2)

You need to adapt the formula as follows:

  • D2 is the cell with the unknown code in it
  • A:B is the range of cells which contain both the code your are looking for and the associated word (A:B is all cells in A and B columns; you might also use something like A2:B340)
  • 2 (the “index”) is which of those columns contains the word you want to ‘pull’. 1 would be column A, because it is the first in your range. 2 is B.
  • As a whole, then, the code looks at the code in D2, then looks across all the cells in A and B to find the same code. If it finds it, then it will ‘copy across’ whatever is in the B column next to that code.

3. Create a spreadsheet for OpenHeatMap to use

With all my codes converted to local authority names (which OpenHeatMap should recognise), I’ve got all the data I need.

I create a new spreadsheet that only contains the relevant data: local authority, and a value (in this case, the percentage of the population that smokes).

I change the header for the local authorities council to uk_council and the other column to value

OpenHeatMap will use the names in uk_council to decide what areas of a UK map to colour in – and it will use the numbers in value to paint them according to whether they are high, low, or near the middle ground.

Now, I publish the spreadsheet as a webpage by going to Share > Publish as webpage. And copy the URL that is generated.

Then it’s off to openheatmap.com and follow the instructions there.

At this point, I hit a problem – one of the local authorities is not recognised: Eilean Siar. That’s okay – I thought this might happen. On the webpage of local authority codes that one was followed by the parenthesis: (formerly Western Isles). This sort of change of name or alternative name is worth looking out for when gathering data as it’s the sort of thing that does tend to trip up scripts.

In my spreadsheet, I change Eilean Siar to Western Isles, go to Share > Publish as a webpage again and click ‘Republish now‘. Returning to OpenHeatMap, I try again, and it seems to have solved the problem. The map works.

It’s a wonderfully simple way to achieve something that would have required a lot of programming knowhow 6 months ago. The UK is notoriously problematic in the way that it uses a range of different geographical reference points (health authorities, police forces and other data sources use others still), so this is a massive step forward in being able to present regional differences in stories.

If you use OpenHeatMap or mapping data yourself, please let me know how you get on and any other tips you pick up.

July 08 2010


June 14 2010


Should there be a media club for Scotland?

Scottish media news website Allmediascotland wants to know whether journalists working in Scotland want a media club. Such a club could offer “regular speaker events, parties and dinners” as well as space for hotdesking and interviewing.

The site is conducting a survey to gauge interest in the club, which could lead to a festival of journalism, annual media awards and exhibitions of Scottish press photography, it says.

The survey can be completed at this link.

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March 18 2010


allmediascotland: Scottish government drops plans to remove public notices from newspapers

The Scottish government has scrapped its plans for legislation, which would have allowed local authorities to place public notices solely on the internet. The proposals had been heavily criticised by representatives of the local press, who feared the legislation would cut off a much-needed revenue stream.

But the fight from local authorities isn’t over – a spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities says the portal for public notices will still go ahead and evidence to support the future introduction of such legislation will be gathered.

Full story at this link…

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March 08 2010


February 03 2010


Future of News meet-up spreads to West Midlands, Brighton and (maybe) Scotland

Having set-up a discussion group online and run two successful offline meet-ups, Adam Westbrook’s Future of News initiative has inspired new events in the West Midlands, Brighton and Scotland. The idea: to discuss new tools, new directions and share ideas for the future of UK journalism.

West Midlands

The first ever meeting of the West Midlands branch of the Future of News group will be held at Birmingham City University on Monday 8 February at 6.45pm. To register you’ll need to sign up here. All is explained in a post on the site Journal Local and there’s a short introductory video from organiser Philip John:


On the same date Journalism.co.uk’s own Judith Townend has set-up the first meeting of the Brighton group – with scheduled talks from the Brighton Argus’ web editor Jo Wadsworth and the Guardian’s Simon Willison. It’s at The Skiff from 7.15pm – and you can sign up here.


Both of which have got digital editor Iain Hepburn wondering what demand there is for a similar meet-up in Scotland. If enough people register an interest, he says he’s happy to get the ball rolling. If you are, let Iain know on this blog post.

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January 06 2010


December 06 2009

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