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March 14 2011


Hyperlocal Voices: Darryl Chamberlain, 853 Blog

853 blog

Having worked for the BBC News Entertainment website for a decade, Darryl Chamberlain took voluntary redundancy and set up the widely successful 853 Blog. As part of the Hyperlocal Voices series he shares some of the secrets of his success.

1) Who where the people behind the blog, and what where their backgrounds?

853’s all mine. My background’s actually in showbiz news. I worked for the BBC News website’s entertainment desk for a decade in a variety of roles – mainly sub-editing and being the daily editor, but also reporting and feature writing.

I took voluntary redundancy and a career break in 2009 – standing in a council election in May 2010, and doing odd bits of freelance work. While standing in an election will probably leave me hopelessly biased in many eyes, it helped introduce me to local issues which simply weren’t being touched, and potential contacts of all political hues. After my glorious defeat, I realised I could do a bit more for my local area by sticking to what I was good at – finding things out and writing about them.

I have lived in the Greenwich area all my life, and it’s an under-reported patch, so here was my chance to do something about it. 853’s helped me keep my hand in the trade, too, which has been a nice spin-off.

More recently, I’ve set up a truly hyperlocal blog, the Charlton Champion , for the area where I live . I’m hoping to get more people involved in it, though, so it develops a different voice and its own distinctive identity. I’ve a few other people on board, but it’s very early days.

I’m also involved in a new project, The Scoop, about London news and politics.

2) When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

I’d blogged under a pseudonym on a couple of other sites for about five years – the usual “have a go at everyone/everything” stuff – before my impending redundancy convinced me I should try something under my own name.

I set 853 up in October 2008, using a basic WordPress template. Originally, it was going to be a showcase for my writing – I had all kinds of plans to go travelling. But the travel stuff only ended up being a small part of what the site became. Maybe I’ll pack my bags again one day and add a bit more travel.

3) What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I’ve always thought a blog should tell you something you don’t know, instead of parroting the same old stuff. So I’ve always been in awe of Diamond Geezer , who’s looking at London’s lesser-known aspects for nearly nine years now.

Jason Cobb’s Onionbagblog was a huge influence – like me, he never set out to scrutinise his local council, but found himself doing it when nobody else was. I’m sure the leadership of Lambeth Council are breathing a sigh of relief now he’s chronicling life on the Essex coast instead.

Adam Bienkov has shown the benefits of persistence and building up good contacts in his chronicle of life at City Hall, while Brockley Central has become the model for just about anybody wanting to set up a hyperlocal blog.

My fellow Greenwich blogger The Greenwich Phantom has a distinctive take on local life which means we don’t tread on each other’s toes, Greenwich.co.uk has shown there is a demand for local news and information, while Transpontine is essential reading if you’re interested in south-east London’s music, culture and history. London SE1 is a fantastic news source which puts the big operators to shame, while Chislehurst News is a newcomer to the SE London scene which is well worth a look.

There’s a loose network of bloggers in south-east London and beyond which has been a great source of inspiration and support.

4) How did- and do you- see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

In south-east London, the hyperlocal blogs are partly filling a gap that’s come about because of market failure. The Greenwich area’s been largely abandoned by the big operators, leaving a couple of freesheets whose editorial is shared with neighbouring Lewisham.

The two boroughs are fairly similar socially but wildly different politically, despite both being Labour areas, and that’s where they hit problems. Combined, those freesheets are struggling to serve an area with the same population of Liverpool against a lack of interest from their proprietors – Tindle’s Mercury has great reporters but is horribly under-resourced and doesn’t even have a proper website, while Newsquest’s News Shopper is based far out in the suburbs and really doesn’t understand the area.

That said, I’d rather 853 complemented rather than competed with them – so when I deal with news I’m concentrating on council-related matters because that’s what’s getting neglected. But it still contains lots of opinion on other issues and anything else that takes my fancy.

5) What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

The turning point was going to a Greenwich Council meeting in July 2009 and watching a member of the public hectored by the mayor because he was having trouble asking a question about a housing development that affected him. It was horrifying to watch but here were no reporters there to see this – the entire meeting went unreported beyond my site.

Greenwich.co.uk’s Rob Powell asked me to cover a few meetings for him after this, and I’ve continued doing this on 853. A lot of the blog’s opinionated, but on council issues the facts usually speak for themselves.

More recently, revealing the closures of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and the council pulling its funding from fireworks on Blackheath – claiming cuts-induced poverty despite blowing £30,000 on a mayor-making ceremony have been important moments for the blog.

Following the ongoing story of the cuts is going to become more important as time goes on – 853 was the first place to report on the initial swathe of Greenwich’s cuts and the Charlton Champion’s revealed the threat to a local petting zoo.

Covering the problems of the Southeastern train company whose press office refuses to deal with blogs – has been a boost for traffic; again, it’s an issue that’s often poorly covered elsewhere.

My background on the BBC News website’s served me well – I get frustrated if I’m not first to a story!

6) What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Traffic has doubled over the past year or so – it tends to go up in spurts with big stories.

December 23 2010


Student scraping in Liverpool: football figures and flying police

A final Hacks & Hackers report to end 2010! Happy Christmas from everyone at ScraperWiki!

Last month ScraperWiki put on its first ever student event, at Liverpool John Moores University in partnership with Open Labs for students from both LJMU’s School of Journalism and the School of Computing & Mathematical Sciences, as well as external participants. This fabulous video comes courtesy of the Hatch. Alison Gow, digital executive editor at the Liverpool Daily Post and the Liverpool Echo has kindly supplied us with the words (below the video).


Report: Hacks and Hackers Hack Day – student edition

By Alison Gow

At the annual conference of the Society of Editors, held in Glasgow in November, there was some debate about journalist training and whether journalism students currently learning their craft on college courses were a) of sufficient quality and b) likely to find work.

Plenty of opinions were presented as facts and there seemed to be no recognition that today’s students might not actually want to work for mainstream media once they graduated – with their varied (and relevant) skill sets they may have very different (and far more entrepreneurial) career plans in mind.

Anyway, that was last month. Scroll forward to December 8 and a rather more optimistic picture of the future emerges. I got to spend the day with a group of Liverpool John Moores University student journalists, programmers and lecturers, local innovators and programming experts, and it seemed to me that the students were going to do just fine in whatever field they eventually chose.

This was Hacks Meet Hackers (Students) – the first event that ScraperWiki (Liverpool’s own scraping and data-mining phenomenon that has done so much to facilitate collaborative learning projects between journalists and coders) had held for students. I was one of four Trinity Mirror journalists lucky enough to be asked along too.

Brought into being through assistance from the excellent LJMU Open Labs team, backed by LJMU journalism lecturer Steve Harrison, #hhhlivS as it was hashtagged was a real eye-opener. It wasn’t the largest group to attend a ScraperWiki hackday I suspect, but I’m willing to bet it was one of the most productive; relevant, viable projects were crafted over the course of the day and I’d be surprised if they didn’t find their way onto the LJMU Journalism news website in the near future.

The projects brought to the presentation room at the end of the day were:

  • The Class Divide: Investigating the educational background of Britain’s MPs
  • Are Police Helicopters Effective in Merseyside?
  • Football League Attendances 1980-2010
  • Sick of School: The link between ill health and unpopular schools

The prize for Idea With The Most Potential went to the Police Helicopters project. This group had used a sample page from Merseyside Police helicopter movements report, which showed time of flight, geography, outcome and duration. They also determined that of the 33% of solved crimes, 0.03% involved the helicopter. Using the data scraped for helicopter flights, and comparing it to crimes and policing costs data, the group extrapolated it cost £1,675 per hour to fly the helicopter (amounting to more than £100,000 a month), and by comparing it to average officer salaries projected this could fund recruitment of 30 extra police officers. The team also suggested potential spin-off ideas around the data.

The Best Use of Data went to the Football League Figures team an all-male bunch of journos and student journos aided by hacker Paul Freeman who scraped data of every Football League club and brought it together into a database that could be used to show attendance trends. These included the dramatic drop in Liverpool FC attendances during the Thatcher years and the rises that coincided with exciting new signings, plunging attendances for Manchester City and subsequent spikes during takeovers, and the affects of promotion and relegation Premier League teams. The team suggested such data could be used for any number of stories, and would prove compelling information for statistics-hungry fans.

The Most Topical project went to the Class Divide group – LJMU students who worked with ScraperWiki’s Julian Todd to scrape data from the Telegraph’s politics web section and investigate the educational backgrounds of MPs. The group set out to investigate whether parliament consisted mainly of privately-educated elected members. The group said the data led them to discover most Lib Dem MPs were state educated, and that there was no slant of figures between state and privately educated MPs, contrary to what might have been expected. They added the data they had uncovered would prove particularly interesting once the MPs’ vote was held on University tuition fees.

The Best Presentation and the Overall Winner of the hackday went to Sick of Schools by Scraping The Barrel – a team of TM journos and students, hacker Brett and student nurse Claire Sutton – who used Office for National Statistics, Census, council information, and scraped data from school prospectuses and wards to investigate illness data and low demand for school places in Sefton borough. By overlaying health data with school places demand they were able to highlight various outcomes which they believed would be valuable for a range of readers, from parents seeking school places to potential house buyers.

Paul Freeman, described in one tweet as the “the Johan Cruyff of football data scraping” was presented with a Scraperwiki mug as the Hacker of the Day, for his sterling work on the Football League data.

Judges Andy Goodwin, of Open Labs, and Chris Frost, head of the Journalism department, praised everyone for their efforts and Aine McGuire, of ScraperWiki, highlighted the great quality of the ideas, and subsequent projects.  It was a long day but it passed incredibly quickly – I was really impressed not only by the ideas that came out but by the collaborative efforts between the students on their projects.

From my experience of the first Hacks Meet Hackers Day (held, again with support from Open Labs, in Liverpool last summer) there was quite a competitive atmosphere not just between the teams but even within teams as members – usually the journalists – pitched their ideas as the ones to run with. Yesterday was markedly less so, with each group working first to determine whether the data supported their ideas, and adapting those projects depending on what the information produced, rather than having a complete end in sight before they started. Maybe that’s why the projects that emerged were so good.

The Liverpool digital community is full of extraordinary people doing important, innovative work (and who don’t always get the credit they deserve). I first bumped into Julian and Aidan as they prepared to give a talk at a Liver and Mash libraries event earlier this year – I’d never heard of ScraperWiki and I was bowled over by the possibilities they talked about (once I got my brain around how it worked). Since then team has done so much to promote the cause of open data, data journalism, the opportunities it can create, and the worth and value it can have for audiences; Scraperwiki hackdays are attended by journalists from all media across the UK, eager to learn more about data-scraping and collaborative projects with hackers.

With the Hacks Meet Hackers Students day, these ideas are being brought into the classroom, and the outcome can only benefit the colleges, students and journalism in the future. It was a great day, and the prospects for the future are exciting.

Watch this space for more ScraperWiki events in 2011!

October 14 2010


Hacks and Hackers hack day Manchester

Any sufficiently complicated regular expression is indistinguishable from magic

A bit of a nod to Arthur C.Clarke there but something that hits home every time I do any hacking around under the bonnet of the interwebs.

When it comes to this data journalism malarky some might say (to steal another movie quote) a mans got to know his limitations. But I firmly believe a good journalist, when stuck, knows who to ask. I’m very excited that more and more journos are realising that there are no end of tools and motivated people who can be part of the storytelling process.

So I was delighted to be asked to be one of the judges for ScraperWiki’s hacks and hackers hack day in Manchester tomorrow and see that in action.

The event just one of a number of similar days around the UK.  The successes in Birmingham and Liverpool amongst others, mean that tomorrow should be fun.

If your going, see you there (later on). If not I’ll tweet etc. as I can.

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