How open is Data Journalism?

Where does data journalism get its data?

  1. In a brown envelope or mysterious memory stick
  2. From freedom of information requests
  3. From free (open) government data sources
  4. Some will collect their own via the crowd

It’s the brown envelope stories that invariably get the headlines (and the data-J love) and, although I think it gets the best bang for it’s money, there aren’t that many doing the collection from the crowd one that well. A look at majority of stories that ‘use’ data shows that it’s FOI that does the heavy lifting.  But when you look beyond the text at infographics, interactive and visual data journalism it’s open government data that provides the backbeat to most data driven content.

In the UK, the ONS are the mainstay of much of the casual data journalism you see out their. Data from the census for example, underpins a good deal of the comparative work of data journalism. The food standards agency hygiene ratings do a roaring trade in local newspapers.  What’s surprising is how little of the data, and the subsequent data developed from it is shared, let alone open.

The open government licence (OGL), which covers much of the open government data out there doesn’t require anything other than you:

acknowledge the source of the Information in your product or application by including or linking to any attribution statement specified by the Information Provider(s) and, where possible, provide a link to this licence;

Data from FOI requests does not carry any copyright restrictions (unless the original data carries copyright) so there shouldn’t be too many barriers to sharing that directly – being more open and transparent.

Journalism is pretty good at attribution – we know where it’s data comes from,. But we very rarely get to handle the data. We see it, in charts and interactive pieces, but the days where news orgs happily gave us a link to a spreadsheet seem to be long gone (Data champions the Guardian’s list of data sets ends at 2013)  It would be great to see newsrooms, as users of open data,  be a little more open with the data they collect. But in the first instance it would be great to see newsroom simply acknowledge sources for data more fully and more accessibly  – working links, licence details etc.

Some examples:

Politicians claim £500,000 expenses for low-profile meetings abroad – This story from the Guardian is a Press Association piece is one of those neat stories where FOI  gets in the gaps and opens things up. But why not link to a spreadsheet of all the expenses?

UK has 2.3m children living in poverty, government says – This BBC story uses ONS data ‘helpfully’ linked in a PDF. They’s clearly released the data from the PDF so why not push that data out in a more open way.

Outrage as Bristol City Council credit card bill revealed: UGG boots, cinema trips and iTunes songs – Great council story from The Bristol Post. To their credit they even have a ‘text’ version of the data at the end of the article. But the original FOI data could have been linked in.

These are all great stories – this isn’t a comment on the quality of the journalism.

I’m increasingly hearing the refrain that data isn’t enough. We need the context, the stories that go with it. This and the tonne of other DJ content out there show how far we’ve come with this stuff.  But, the flip side is that if we have the stories then we can’t lose the data – the facts behind the story.  This is really important when that data is often second-hand. A number of stories I looked at had data from third-parties i.e. charities.  It’s not that the data is hokey but making it available would make it transparent.

I’m not sure that we are getting the best out of this data if it remains locked inside organisations – regardless of it being a government org or a private org. Taking a bit more of an open mindset would start to make the journalism even more usable.

Image by Kate Ter Haar via Flickr

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