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June 30 2011

10:35

Big society research

About 12 months ago I was asked by a colleague if I’d like to participate in a project called Big Society research.

After the political rhetoric in the run up to the election last year it seemed at the very least like an opportunity to find out how the legacy of people working together to create better neighbourhoods, improve public services and adapt to constantly changing economic, social and cultural situations was somehow different to the way they might do that in Cameron’s so called ‘Big Society’.

Four themed workshops for researchers and none academics aim to collect together the raft of existing research which might provide some pointers to what Big Society might be about – whilst recognising that the vast majority of work in this area substantially pre-dates attempts by any political party to badge it as a policy initiative. And this is where most of the tension lay as researchers and others disassociate themselves with the party political posturing in order to get on with the business of collating evidence through past papers, case studies, interventions and ongoing projects by people who never thought they were doing was anything other than trying to work out why things don’t work as well as they might – and in some cases – how this could be changed so they did.

Amidst the media ripples of discontent among colleagues in the research community over the relative distance between central government (funding) and researchers in relation to ‘Big Society’ a friend of mine offered some helpful thoughts. His view was that intellectually he could not ignore the possibilities of new thinking purely because he was extremely uncomfortable with the ‘language of the right’. He gave me a concrete apolitical example from work he’d been doing in India where villagers – not health professionals – support new mothers and babies. His work identified the response of the villagers as cultural. There to deepen the ties of existing relationships and encourage others to share responsibility for care. Uncovering the essence of how this practice emerged and how it continues is surely a worthwhile intellectual pursuit regardless of its apparent mapping with the cost saving agenda of policy makers. Not exactly a justification for research into ‘Big Society’ but a compelling argument nevertheless and one that ought to persuade some that perhaps the biggest challenge of this new context is how to retain the integrity of work in this area for its own sake and how to frame and present it in such a way that it cannot be hi-jacked by ‘policy wonks’ and political band wagoners to further a spurious cost saving agenda.

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 20 2010

10:50

The BBC and missed data journalism opportunities

Bar chart: UN progress on eradication of world hunger

I’ve tweeted a couple of times recently about frustrations with BBC stories that are based on data but treat it poorly. As any journalist knows, two occasions of anything in close proximity warrants an overreaction about a “worrying trend”. So here it is.

“One in four council homes fails ‘Decent Homes Standard’”

This is a great piece of newsgathering, but a frustrating piece of online journalism. “Almost 100,000 local authority dwellings have not reached the government’s Decent Homes Standard,” it explained. But according to what? Who? “Government figures seen by BBC London”. Ah, right. Any more detail on that? No.

The article is scattered with random statistics from these figures “In Havering, east London, 56% of properties do not reach Decent Homes Standard – the highest figure for any local authority in the UK … In Tower Hamlets the figure is 55%.”

It’s a great story – if you live in those two local authorities. But it’s a classic example of narrowing a story to fit the space available. This story-centric approach serves readers in those locations, and readers who may be titillated by the fact that someone must always finish bottom in a chart – but the majority of readers will not live in those areas, and will want to know what the figures are for their own area. The article does nothing to help them do this. There are only 3 links, and none of them are deep links: they go to the homepages for Havering Council, Tower Hamlets Council, and the Department of Communities and Local Government.

In the world of print and broadcast, narrowing a story to fit space was a regrettable limitation of the medium; in the online world, linking to your sources is a fundamental quality of the medium. Not doing so looks either ignorant or arrogant.

“Uneven progress of UN Millennium Development Goals”

An impressive piece of data journalism that deserves credit, this looks at the UN’s goals and how close they are to being achieved, based on a raft of stats, which are presented in bar chart after bar chart (see image above). Each chart gives the source of the data, which is good to see. However, that source is simply given as “UN”: there is no link either on the charts or in the article (there are 2 links at the end of the piece – one to the UN Development Programme and the other to the official UN Millennium Development Goals website).

This lack of a link to the specific source of the data raises a number of questions: did the journalist or journalists (in both of these stories there is no byline) find the data themselves, or was it simply presented to them? What is it based on? What was the methodology?

The real missed opportunity here, however, is around visualisation. The relentless onslaught on bar charts makes this feel like a UN report itself, and leaves a dry subject still looking dry. This needed more thought.

Off the top of my head, one option might have been an overarching visualisation of how funding shortfalls overall differ between different parts of the world (allowing you to see that, for example, South America is coming off worst). This ‘big picture’ would then draw in people to look at the detail behind it (with an opportunity for interactivity).

Had they published a link to the data someone else might have done this – and other visualisations – for them. I would have liked to try it myself, in fact.

Compare this article, for example, with the Guardian Datablog’s treatment of the coalition agreement: a harder set of goals to measure, and they’ve had to compile the data themselves. But they’re transparent about the methodology (it’s subjective) and the data is there in full for others to play with.

It’s another dry subject matter, but The Guardian have made it a social object.

No excuses

The BBC is not a print outlet, so it does not have the excuse of these stories being written for print (although I will assume they were researched with broadcast as the primary outlet in mind).

It should also, in theory, be well resourced for data journalism. Martin Rosenbaum, for example, is a pioneer in the field, and the team behind the BBC website’s Special Reports section does some world class work. The corporation was one of the first in the world to experiment with open innovation with Backstage, and runs a DataArt blog too. But the core newsgathering operation is missing some basic opportunities for good data journalism practice.

In fact, it’s missing just one basic opportunity: link to your data. It’s as simple as that.

On a related note, the BBC Trust wants your opinions on science reporting. On this subject, David Colquhoun raises many of the same issues: absence of links to sources, and anonymity of reporters. This is clearly more a cultural issue than a technical one.

Of all the UK’s news organisations, the BBC should be at the forefront of transparency and openness in journalism online. Thinking politically, allowing users to access the data they have spent public money to acquire also strengthens their ideological hand in the Big Society bunfight.

July 06 2010

10:05

Don’t stop us digging into public spending data

A very disturbing discovery by Chris Taggart last week: a number of councils in the UK are handing over their ‘open’ data to a company which only allows it to be downloaded for “personal” use.

As Chris himself points out, this runs completely against the spirit of the push to release public data in a number of ways:

  • Data cannot be used for “commercial gain”. This includes publishers wanting to present the information in ways that make most sense to the reader, and startups wanting to find innovative ways to involve people in their local area. Oh, and that whole ‘Big Society‘ stuff.
  • The way the sites are built means you couldn’t scrape this information with a computer anyway
  • It’s only a part of the data. “Download the data from SpotlightOnSpend and it’s rather different from the published data [on the Windsor & Maidenhead site]. Different in that it is missing core data that is in W&M published data (e.g. categories), and that includes data that isn’t in the published data (e.g. data from 2008).”

It’s a very worrying path indeed. As Chris sums it up: ” Councils hand over all their valuable financial data to a company which aggregates for its own purposes, and, er, doesn’t open up the data, shooting down all those goals of mashing up the data, using the community to analyse and undermining much of the good work that’s been done.”

The Transparency Board quickly issued a statement about this issue saying that “urgent” measures are taking place to rectify the problem.

And Spikes Cavell, who make the software, responded in Information Age, pointing out that “it is first and foremost a spend analysis software and consultancy supplier, and that it publishes data through SpotlightOnSpend as a free, optional and supplementary service for its local government customers. The hope is that this might help the company to win business, he explains, but it is not a money-spinner in itself.”

They are now promising to make the data available for download in its “raw form”, although it’s not clear what that will be. Adrian Short’s comment to the piece is worth reading.

Nevertheless, this is an issue that anyone interested in holding power to account should keep a close eye on. And to that aim, Chris has started an investigation on Help Me Investigate to find out how and why councils are giving access to their spending data. Please join it and help here.

(Comment or email me on paul at helpmeinvestigate.com if you want an invitation.)

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