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July 02 2010


Local history as a game (MA Online Journalism multimedia projects pt2)

Following on from the previous post on serious music journalism using data, here’s some more detail on how MA Online Journalism students have been exploring multimedia journalism.

Using data to shed light on dangers for cyclists

Dan Davies explored video and mapping audio before catching the data bug – in this case, around cycling collisions. Like Caroline, he sourced data from a range of sources, including media reports, an RSS feed from FixMyStreet, another RSS feed from Google News, Freedom of Information requests – and getting out there and collecting it himself.

He’s visualised the data in a range of ways at Birmingham Cycle Data, using tools such as Yahoo! Pipes and ManyEyes, and collaborated with cycling communities too. The results provide a range of insights into transport issues for cyclists:

“Click on the individual lines. If you click on the purple line it shows six southbound cars went through on two ocassions. Generally, the spikes alternate according to the traffic lights. But some traffic is so busy it hardly ever gets to zero. The safest time to cross for cyclists was at 16:46 when three bicycles got through the lights without other traffic piling across.”

“If you swap the three arrows at the top of the table around so it reads Road Name > Accident Severity > Ward it shows the most dangerous road in Birmingham. As any Brum cyclist might have anticipated, the answer is Stratford Road. However, the grey lines within the box currently mark accident severity so by that rationale it should be High St which has had 3 serious accidents. Until you realise these accidents took place on different High Streets. The same problem exists with Church Rd.”

They also provide useful lessons in interpreting and cleaning data.

Civic history as a game

In addition to the cycling data project, Dan created ‘Spaghetti Junctions‘ – a game centred on cultural facts and urban myths about Birmingham. The site – which is basically a Wordpress blog that allows users admin access – explains:

“You score 10 points if you post. You also score 10 points if you upload a photo with your post. And we give you another 10 points if you locate the post on the Spaghetti Junctions map.

“A fact is called a Bull’s Eye worth 50 points
“A myth is called a Chinny Reckon worth 25 points
“An entertaining myth is a Super Chinn worth 100 points
“You can state whether you think it is a Bull’s Eye or Chinny Reckon by selecting a category when you post. Only the Chinnmaster can award a Super Chinn.

“Anyone can dispute a fact or myth by leaving a comment under a post. The Chinnmaster will check this.”

Those familiar with local history in Birmingham will understand what a ‘Chinny’ refers to.

More information on how the site is constructed can be found in this blog post. It’s a fascinating experiment in engaging people with their local history – and checking those oft-repeated civic boasts.

Next: using data to scrutinise local swimming facilities.

February 25 2010


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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