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The importance of little data: creating an impact at a local level

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Data journalism can have a real impact at a local level and although this type of reporting is less mainstream than it is nationally, examples and opportunities for best practice do exist.

Book chapter in Data Journalism: Inside the global future- available: https://www.amazon.com/Data-Journalism-Inside-global-future/dp/1845496639

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The importance of little data: creating an impact at a local level

  1. 1. The importance of little data: creating an impact at a local level Data journalism can have a real impact at a local level, argues Damian Radcliffe, and although this type of reporting is less mainstream than it is nationally, examples and opportunities for best practise do exist Introduction Data is everywhere. Big data. Little data. Hyperlocal data. The amount of information being created – and increasingly published – about us and our environment is growing at an exponential rate. Government agencies, as well as commercial companies such as retailors, search engines and social networks, now generate – and have access to – substantial amounts of valuable data about our behaviours, preferences and geographic locality. The implications of this for citizens and consumers are considerable, but for journalists this volume of data generation is a potential boon; creating opportunities for storytelling and public scrutiny at a level not previously possible. Typically, many of these data driven efforts have a strong international or national dimension, with publications such as the Guardian and ProPublica being among the best exemplars for investigations, visualisations and data originated content. Yet, at the same time, as a recent University of Westminster project exploring media power and plurality has noted: ‘...it is at the local level that the vast majority of citizens interact with hospitals, schools, transport systems, the police and elected council representatives ’ (University of Westminster, ND). As a result, the importance of both local journalism - and local data journalism - should not be overlooked. After all, this type of reporting may provide more meaningful insights for the day-to-day lives of readers than many of the stories covered by national media. However, in the data space, the creation of in-depth localised content is not always easy to produce. Datasets are generally smaller, potentially making the stories within them less obvious; and most local newsrooms operate with considerably fewer resources than their national – and international – counterparts. Both of these factors help explain why we tend to see less data journalism at the local level; and why most of the analysis of this activity – from both academics and practitioners – predominantly focuses on national data journalism efforts. Nonetheless, when done well, the journalistic, public and civic value that local data journalism can deliver is discernible. As a result, I hope that this type of data driven output becomes more prevalent in the near future. With that objective in mind, this chapter contains a number of short case studies – as well as several general principles – designed to help aid and inspire J-School students, local journalists, community publishers and hyperlocal media practitioners in making local data journalism a more mainstream reality.
  2. 2. 2 Hyperlocal data journalism: five case studies from the USA and UK Much of the US media has well established local and regional roots. Therefore, it’s no surprise that a number of American based websites have deployed data journalism to help tell the stories of the local communities they serve. Historically this has primarily focussed on the use of public statistics to help tell stories related to popular local news beats such as crime, public health and education. This approach remains widespread, but increasingly we’re also seeing publishers branching out into more sophisticated uses of data, as mapping, crowdsourcing and other visualisation efforts become ever more common. Bay Citizen Bike Tracker 1 In California, The Bay Citizen, a non-profit, non-partisan, member-supported news organisation covering the San Francisco Bay area, successfully used public data to produce a potentially lifesaving bike accident tracker. Published in 2011, their interactive microsite used five years of data to show the location of bike accidents across the entire Bay area. In doing this, their map harnessed information from 14,113 separate incidents that took place between January 2005 and December 2009; enabling cyclists to determine the safest routes to use, and the ones to avoid. Alongside the presentation of top-level accident findings, users of this service could also filter the data by road conditions, lighting and other requirements such as ‘who is at fault’, thereby producing a more nuanced look at the causes of these accidents. The site also enables cyclists or motorists to submit their own crash data; an important addition to this data mix, as the police only produce accident reports if an ambulance is called. According to Zusha Elinson, one of the reporters on the project: ‘Our hope is that this, combined with statistics from the police, will provide a better idea of where and why crashes are taking place,’ (Elinson, 2011). Blogger and keen cyclist, Steven Vance, is just one person who was inspired by The Bay Citizen’s approach and he used their model to produce a similar map for Chicago; charting the 4,931 bicycle crashes reported to the Illinois Department of Transportation in the City of Chicago from 2007 to 2009, including 12 fatalities.2 Other areas where similar interactive services have been created include Boston, London, Los Angeles, New York City and Seattle.
  3. 3. 3 Figure XX: Screenshot from the Bike Tracker. Source: http://media.baycitizen.org/uploaded/images/2011/2/bike-app- ss/original/BIKE%20APP%20SS.jpg San Jose Streetlight Shutoff Program San Jose based NeighborWebSJ is also home to a range of data driven output. Although the site is currently mothballed – with no new activity since May 2014 – it previously used digital maps to report on the ‘Streetlight Shutoff Program’, a cost-saving initiative from City Hall that sought to permanently switch off certain lights across the town. The proposal was part of a wider effort to reduce the city’s USD$90m (STG£58m) budget shortfall, and was anticipated to reduce the annual electric bill for streetlights by USD$77,000 (STG£50,000) against a total annual electric bill for streetlights of USD$3.5m (STG£2.27m). Despite the need for cost savings, many residents and businesses campaigned against the scheme, arguing that it increased the risk of crime. On just one road, Alum Rock Avenue, a resident complained that lights were out at 13 bus stops, thereby increasing the vulnerability of passengers. In response to these community concerns, the website included a Google Map to indicate where lights were out across the city, as well as information on how to contact the authorities about this issue (Rombeck, ND a). This combination of reporting and community facilitation helped to identify that some lights had been turned off by accident, while others were turned back on again as a result of public pressure; including the bus stops on Alum Rock Avenue. In February 2013 the city agreed to reconnect 900 of the streetlights that had been previously shut off as part of the budget cuts in 2008 and 2009 (Rombeck, ND b). Homicide Watch
  4. 4. 4 The team at NeighborWebSJ also produced a Google Map identifying all of the 2012 homicides in San Jose, using data from police press releases, and links to other media.3 Crime reporting has always been a journalistic staple, but the fusion of data with interactive online publishing tools has taken it to the next level; even spawning its own genre with specialist homicide websites springing up in a number of major US cities. Of these, arguably the best known was Homicide Watch DC, which covered every murder in the District of Columbia. Although the site closed on 31 December 2014, it had previously spent the past four years blending data with ‘original reporting, court documents, social media, and the help of victims’ and suspects’ friends, family, neighbours and others in an effort to ‘cover every homicide from crime to conviction’ (Homicide Watch, DC). It was awarded the Knight Public Service Award by the Online News Association in 2012 (ONA, 2012) in recognition of its efforts to explore a single issue in a single geographic area, and inspired a series of copycat services such as Homicide Watch Trenton and Homicide Watch Chicago and The Counted, a crowd sourced – more clearly data driven - project by the Guardian ‘working to count the number of people killed by police and other law enforcement agencies in the United States throughout 2015, to monitor their demographics and to tell the stories of how they died’ (the Guardian, 2015). Gritting routes in Bournville That valuable sites like Homicide Watch DC – along with several others cited here – have closed reflects the harsh economic reality that many media operations continue to face, especially at a local level. Making journalism pay is a challenge for many publishers, even when they are clearly delivering public value and content which informs communities; and that can make a difference. There are few outlets that are immune to these pressures, although some hyperlocal websites, particularly those run by volunteers, are not always impacted in the same way. Alongside original content, these ultra-local channels can also help to generate value by taking information that is already in the public domain and repurposing it so that it is more useful for local audiences. This approach can be particularly useful for health, crime and transport data; with the latter consistently being a key driver for local media consumption. One person who recognised this potential is the UK academic and hyperlocal publisher Dave Harte. In 2010 he produced a map of gritting routes for Bournville4 , taking publicly available information but presenting it in a more user-friendly format. On his blog he explained the ‘tedious process of creating the map and why this hyperlocal blogging thing is doomed to failure unless we get a rich supply of local data to feed off’ (Harte, 2010). But despite this tediousness, he also understood that such output could also be beneficial for his audience: ‘I thought the potential grit shortage might mean that some roads would stop getting gritted should the cold spell continue and knowing which roads were meant to be gritted would be useful knowledge. “Will my road get gritted?” is an easy question to answer since the City Council has an alphabetical list of all the roads that are gritted in order of priority’ (ibid). Later in the year, James Cousins, Conservative councillor for the Shaftesbury Ward in Wandsworth, London, did something similar; plotting the location of all grit bins in the borough
  5. 5. 5 on a Google map and posting this on his blog5 . The data, previously only available in a text format – and four clicks deep – on the council website, was now potentially a lot more accessible and valuable to local audiences (Dale, 2011). Figure xx: Dave Harte’s gritting map for Bournville. Tackling accident black spots in Bramcote Alongside presenting existing data in new and creative ways, hyperlocal and geographically focussed community websites can also encourage the creation of new datasets; covering subjects where existing data either does not exist, or it fails to provide the level of detail that communities and local decision makers need. This type of crowdsourcing was manifest in NeighborWebSJ’s response to San Jose’s Streetlight Shutoff Program, and also in the opportunity for audiences to contribute to The Bay Citizen’s Bike Accident Tracker. It is an approach that was also manifest in Bramcote Today’s response to online discussions about Hillside Road (Johnson, 2011a) – a notorious accident black spot on the outskirts of Nottingham. As a result of these online conversations, the county council installed equipment to monitor the number and speed of vehicles, later sharing the results (Johnson, 2011b) with Bramcote Today readers and involving them in a discussion around potential solutions; such as a community speed watch scheme (Austin, 2011). A number of these measures were successfully implemented. This result was very much in line with the hyperlocal ethos of Talk About Local founder William Perrin. His company had supported residents in Bramcote to create their own website, and they’ve worked with other communities to produce similar outputs. A passionate advocate for hyperlocal media and community journalism, Perrin has described his ambition to: ‘… use the web to drive people into local democratic avenues to get things to change.... [The websites are] there to augment real human engagement in the political process. You need representatives to make decisions ... but the web can help them understand better what those issues should be... we help augment traditional community action’ (cited in Beckett, 2010).
  6. 6. 6 Data journalism: five tips, tricks and core considerations As we have seen, data journalism – from the capturing of new data to the presentation of existing information in new and creative ways – can provide communities with valuable content that informs their day-to-day lives. Here are five areas for local journalists to reflect on, in order to determine the best way to use data (if at all) in their work. 1. Is it right for you, both personally and in terms of the story? Data Journalism is an increasingly high profile component of the journalist’s playbook; being used as a tool for both storytelling and story gathering. But although data journalism can help to deliver valuable output, it’s not always an easy area to engage with. ‘… you need to be a particular type of person. Politically, you need to be engaged and interested in local government, understand how local government works and have a driving reason to dedicate yourself to it. To have all these traits in combination is rare (Worthy, 2013). Particular barriers pertinent – but not solely applicable – to local publishers include time; skills; and the format in which the data is available (Wheeler, 2012). Time is a particularly important consideration for hyperlocal publishers given that these sites are seldom run full-time (many successful practitioners hold down separate day jobs). Meanwhile, journalists at many local publications find themselves under increased pressure to produce an ever-greater volume of stories on a daily/weekly basis. As a result, journalists and publishers may come to the conclusion that they cannot cover everything (Jones, 2011) and that their limited time is better served focusing on delivering content that is quicker (and often easier) to produce. Journalists should, of course, not be adverse to hard work, but they also need to ask themselves if a data driven approach is the right one and, if it is, how to use it effectively. 2. Can I use an “off-the-shelf” solution? One way that local publishers can help to make things easier for themselves is by using off-the- shelf resources – such as mySociety’s ‘FixMyStreet’ widget (www.fixmystreet.com) – to help them produce data driven content. This online tool allows people to ‘report, view, or discuss local problems like graffiti, fly tipping, broken paving slabs or street lighting’ and websites in the UK and elsewhere have benefitted from this app and online plugin. Since it launched in early February 2007, more than 700,000 incident reports6 have been generated through this service in the UK alone, with MySociety reporting that over 50 per cent of users have never contacted their local council before; showing that the tool can play a role in promoting active citizenship (FixMyStreet, 2013) as well as being a fertile source for a variety of journalistic endeavours. Some US hyperlocals use a similar tool, SeeClickFix (en.seeclickfix.com) to create content and community action around issues that matter to their audience. The data captured by these services can highlight problems, generate stories and promote discussion. It’s ‘an example of community news that doesn't necessarily come packaged in story form’ (Gahran, 2012), but one that nevertheless provides actionable insights into the concerns of local communities.
  7. 7. 7 3. Remember that data alone is not enough Although tools like SeeClickFix and FixMyStreet – as well as public open data platforms – are incredibly useful resources for journalists, they only do half a job. Data on its own doesn’t tell a story: we still need journalists to decide how to arrange, analyse and visualise data, as well as provide appropriate context and interpretation. These are important considerations for publishers, and the initial failure of the EveryBlock – a US-based website which aggregated local information produced by government and state agencies – merely reinforces this point. The site, which offered a data-centric approach to hyperlocal, launched in 2008 and was bought by MNBC in 2009. However, in February 2013, the site was closed after NBC decided that they ‘didn’t see a strategic fit for EveryBlock within the [NBC News Digital] portfolio’ (Schiller, cited in Sonderman, 2013). In January 2014, with the EveryBlock brand and service now owned by Comcast – following their acquisition of NBCUniversal - the site was relaunched in Chicago; with Philadelphia following in late August (Wright 2014). Since then, Houston, Boston and Denver have been added to this list of active operations.7 One of EveryBlock’s original problems, as Steve Johnson, Assistant Professor of Electronic Journalism at Montclair State University, noted is that: ‘Readers don’t care about the raw data. They want the story within the data’ (Johnson, 2013). To illustrate this, he explained what happened when he explored data related to lower Manhattan: ‘There were reports on what graffiti the city said it had erased each month, by neighborhoods. But what was missing was context, and photos. If I’m a reporter doing a story on graffiti, I want to show before and after photos, AND, more importantly, I want to know whether the city is successfully fighting the graffiti artists, i.e., who is winning. The raw data didn’t provide that’ (ibid). This lack of context is, perhaps, one of the reasons why the site originally failed to resonate sufficiently with audiences or advertisers to survive; and despite its recent resurrection this sobering experience offers valuable lessons for publishers. 4. The value of networked journalism To some extent, the EveryBlock team acknowledged the shortcomings of their data-first approach when, in 2011, the site moved in a new direction, telling their audience: ‘As valuable as automated updates of crime, media mentions, and other EveryBlock news are, contributions from your fellow neighbors are significantly more meaningful and useful. While we’re not removing our existing aggregation of public records and other neighborhood information (more on this in a bit), we’ve come to realize that human participation is essential, not only as a layer on top but as the bedrock of the site, (Holovaty, 2011). Prior to its 2014 revival by Comcast, this pivot was initially unsuccessful, highlighting the importance – when producing community news and information – of involving and engaging the community in this process from the outset. Techniques to do this include crowdsourcing
  8. 8. 8 information; and fact checking and tapping into the specific expertise of your audience, as the Birmingham based UK website Help Me Investigate (hempmeinvestigate.com) did on a case-by- case basis. Working in this way may require a change of approach for some publishers. But, as Professor Jeff Jarvis has argued: ‘Professional and amateur, journalist and citizen may now work together to gather and share more news in more ways to more people than was ever possible before. Networked journalism is founded on a simple, self-evident and self-interested truth: We can do more together than we can apart .… This, I believe, is the natural state of media: two-way and collaborative’ (Jarvis, 2008). 5. Determine your approach on a case-by-case basis Data Journalism may be in vogue at present, but its usage needs to be assessed like any other potential editorial approach; with journalists determining if, when, and how, usage of data journalism tools and techniques add value to the stories being told. This sentiment is just as applicable in the local news and information space as it is when covering elections, reporting on public spending, or holding national bodies to account. When used well, local media can harness data driven journalism to inform audiences, support campaigns and garner fresh insights into the concerns of their audiences. In doing this, many publishers are making extensive use of maps and mapping tools, embracing off-the-shelf widgets and capturing data that helps to inform their reporting and campaigning. They are also increasingly presenting data in visually arresting ways – see, for example, DNAinfo.com, New York’s use of maps and infographics to help demonstrate their analysis of the city’s 2011 stop and frisk numbers (Colvin and Harris, 2012). In line with audience preferences for more visual content, media companies are also creating more data driven apps and microsites, providing a more detailed immersive experience into topics such as bike accidents, expenditure by public bodies, or cuts to the public sector (Watt, 2010), than might previously have been the case. That each story can be told in a different way is a valuable reminder that not all journalism can be produced with boilerplates. As Simon Rogers has argued, due to its nascent nature ‘data journalism is a great leveller… many media groups are starting with as much prior knowledge and expertise as someone hacking away from their bedroom’ (2012). This is particularly true in the ‘little data’ space where there is considerable scope for more data-led reporting, as well as increased levels of innovation and creativity. Approaches to this should depend on a combination of the story being told, the skills of the journalists involved, what audiences want/need, as well as the mediums being used. As this paper shows there’s lots of potential ways to do this; it’s now up to local publishers and journalists to make it happen. Notes 1. Bay Citizen bicycle tracker is available at www.baycitizen.org/data/bikes/bike-accident-tracker 2. Steve Vance’s crash site is available at www.stevevance.net/crashportal/?page=bikecrash
  9. 9. 9 3. San Jose’s homicides map is available at www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?ll=37.321732%2C- 121.875501&spn=0.171191%2C0.205865&hl=en&t=m&msa=0&source=embed&ie=U TF8&mid=z41BAUCJvuoU.kSltz3XWQv30 4. Gritting routes for Bournville is available at www.google.com/maps/d/viewer? mid=zFcpZs47iTHE.kpKEXjMO-pYw&hl=en 5. James Cousins’ grit bins map is available at http://jamescousins.com/2010/12/gritting- wandsworth 6. A live counter of the total number of incident reports for the UK is available at https://www.fixmystreet.com/ 7. EveryBlock FAQ, http://www.everyblock.com/faq/, accessed 15 September 2015 References Austin, Steve (2011) ‘Hillside Road Proposals’ in Bramcote Today, 4 April, available at http://bramcotetoday.org.uk/2011/04/04/hillside-road/, accessed 6 October 2013 Beckett, Charlie (2010) ‘Grassroots networked journalism key to future of local news, says Polis director’ in Journalism.co.uk, 7 June, available at www.journalism.co.uk/news- features/grassroots-networked-journalism-key-to-future-of-local-news-says-polis- director/s5/a539020/, accessed 6 October 2013 Bradshaw, Paul (2011) ‘Announcing Help Me Investigate: Networks’ in Online Journalism Blog, 7 November, available at http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2011/11/07/announcing- help-me-investigate-networks/, accessed 6 October 2013 Colvin, Jill and Davis, Paul (2012) ‘Port Authority is top stop-and-frisk hotspot regardless of race’, in DNAinfo, New York, 4 June, available at www.dnainfo.com/new- york/20120604/new-york-city/port-authority-is-top-stop-and-frisk-hotspot-regardless- of-race#ixzz1wrTXMVW5, accessed 6 October 2013 Dale, Robert (2011) ‘Engaging the local population – online’ in BBC Online, 19 October, available at www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/blogcollegeofjournalism/posts/engaging_the_local _population, accessed 6 October 2013 Elinson, Zusha (2011) ‘Police refuse to write reports for many San Francisco bike crashes’, in The Bay Citizen, 9 February, available at www.baycitizen.org/news/bikes/police-refuse- reports-bike-accidents, accessed 14 September 2015 FixMyStreet (2013) ‘FixMyStreet – press use’, available at www.mysociety.org/press- area/fixmystreet, accessed 6 October 2013 Gahran, Amy (2012) ‘SeeClickFix: Crowdsourced local problem reporting as community news’, in Knight Digital Media Center, 19 September, available at www.knightdigitalmediacenter.org/blogs/agahran/2012/09/seeclickfix-crowdsourced- local-problem-reporting-community-news, accessed 6 October 2013 Harte, David (2010) ‘Data is the New Grit’, in daveharte.com blog, 14 January, available at http://daveharte.com/bournville/data-is-the-new-grit, accessed 6 October 2013 Holovaty, Adrian (2011) ‘EveryBlock’s first major redesign’, EveryBlock blog, 21 March, available at http://blog.everyblock.com/2011/mar/21/redesign, accessed 6 October 2013
  10. 10. 10 Homicide Watch DC, available at http://homicidewatch.org/, accessed 14 September 2015 House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee (2010) Future for local and regional media, House of Commons, London, 24 March, available at www.publications.parliament.uk /pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmcumeds/43/4302.htm, accessed 6 October 2013 Jarvis, Jeff (2008) ‘Supermedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World’ in BuzzMachine, 6 June, available at http://buzzmachine.com/2008/06/06/supermedia, accessed 6 October 2013 Johnson, Mike (2011a) ‘Accidents on Hillside Road’, in Bramcote Today, 14 March, available http://bramcotetoday.org.uk/2011/03/14/accidents-on-hillside-road, accessed 6 October 2013 Johnson, Mike (2011b) ‘Accidents on Hillside Road – Traffic Survey Results’, in Bramcote Today, 29 March, available http://bramcotetoday.org.uk/2011/03/29/hillside-road-survey- results-2, accessed 6 October 2013 Johnson, Steve (2013) ‘Sorry EveryBlock, you never learned how to write a headline’, in Hudson Eclectic, 8 February, available at http://hudsoneclectic.com/2013/02/08/sorry- everyblock-you-never-learned-how-to-write-a-headline, accessed 6 October 2013 Jones, Richard (2011) ‘Thirteen lessons I’ve learned from running a hyperlocal site’, in The Richard Jones Journalism Blog, 5 October, available at http://richardjonesjournalist.com/ 2011/10/05/thirteen-lessons-ive-learned-from-running-a-hyperlocal-site, accessed 6 October 2013 Online News Association (2012) ‘2012 Online Journalism Awards Winners Announced’ available at http://journalists.org/2012/09/24/2012-online-journalism-award-winners- announced, accessed 14 September 2015 Rogers, Simon (2012) ‘Anyone can do it: data journalism is the new punk’ in the Guardian Datablog, 24 May, available at www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/may/24/data-journalism-punk, accessed 14 September 2015 Rombeck, Janice (ND a) ‘Shutoff streetlights worry SJ neighborhoods’, in NeighborWebSJ, available at www.neighborwebsj.com/shutoff-streetlights-worry-sj-residents, accessed 6 October 2013 Rombeck, Janice (ND b) ‘900 streetlights shut off to save energy costs will shine again starting in March’, in NeighborWebSJ, available at www.neighborwebsj.com/900-streetlights-shut- off-to-save-energy-costs-will-shine-again-starting-in-march, accessed 6 October 2013 Sonderman, Jeff (2013) ‘NBC closes hyperlocal, data-driven publishing pioneer’, in Poynter, February 7, available at www.poynter.org/latest-news/top-stories/203437/nbc-closes- hyperlocal-pioneer-everyblock, accessed 6 October 2013 the Guardian (2015) ‘The Counted: About the project’ available at www.theguardian.com/us- news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/about-the-counted accessed 14 September 2015 University of Wesminster (ND) ‘Local and Hyperlocal’ blog, available at http://www.mediaplurality.com/local-and-hyperlocal, accessed 14 September 2014 Watt, Andrew (2010) ‘Birmingham budget cuts ... The story so far’, in Watt’s Going On, 20 November, available at http://watts-going-on.blogspot.com/2010/11/birmingham- budget-cuts-story-so-far.html, accessed 6 October 2013
  11. 11. 11 Wheeler, Brian (2012) ‘Government online data ignored by “armchair auditors”’, BBC News, 9 November, available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20221398, accessed 6 October 2013 Wright, Paul (2014) ‘EveryBlock: the online community for your neighborhood’ Comcast Voices, 26 August, available at http://corporate.comcast.com/comcast- voices/everyblock-the-online-community-for-your-neighborhood, accessed 15 September 2015 Worthy, Ben (2013) ‘Where are the armchair auditors?’ Open Data Institute, 3 June, available at www.theodi.org/blog/guest-blog-where-are-armchair-auditors, accessed 6 October 2013

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