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Signals intelligence journalism: using public information websites to source stories

Useful information is more widely and easily available than ever and the increasing amount of online data released by the government and others can help improve the originality of journalists’ work.

Look to VentnorBlog – the hyperlocal online effort based in the Isle of Wight which Journalism.co.uk commended during the Vestas protest coverage – for some inspiration.

[For those unfamiliar with the story, locals had been protesting against the closure of the wind turbine factory in front of national, local and hyperlocal media. Despite a long and well-publicised campaign in August 2009, Danish company Vestas has now pulled out of manufacturing on the Isle of Wight but protests and attacks by critics in the press continue. A national day of action to support redundant Vestas workers has been planned for Thursday, September 17.]

Last week, using the Area Ship Traffic Website, AIS, VB was able to report where two barges held by an agent – NEG  Micron Rotors – who used to own the Vestas’ factory were due to head. They would be used to move the blades from the factory, which are so huge that they can only travel away on the water on special vessels.

The correspondent who tipped off VentnorBlog knew that the wind turbine blades can only be transferred from the riverside to barge when it is high tide and across a public footpath so, using the information on the AIS site, concluded that the barges would be moved in a specific time slot.

As a result Vestas protesters asked supporters to join them at the Marine Gate on the River Medina. Of course VentnorBlog got down there to take some pictures.

Now let’s take that one step further: how can journalists tap into this kind of publicly available data to scoop stories?

Tony Hirst, Open University academic, Isle of Wight resident and prolific data masher, shared some thoughts with Journalism.co.uk. He said that we should look to signals intelligence for further inspiration: the interception and analysis of ‘signals’ emitted by whoever you are surveying. As military historians would be the first to tell you, they can be a very rich source of intelligence about others’ actions and intentions, he explained.

“A major component of SIGINT is COMINT, or Communications Intelligence, which focuses on the communications between parties of interest. Even if communications are encrypted, Traffic Analysis, or the study of who’s talking to whom, how frequently, at what time of day, or  - historically – in advance of what sort of action, can be used to learn about the intentions of others.”

And this is relevant to journalists, he added:

“For starters, data is information, or raw intelligence. The job of the analyst, or the data journalist, is to identify signals in that information in order to identify something of meaning – ‘intelligence’ about intentions, or ‘evidence’ for a particular storyline.

The VentnorBlog story, he said, describes how a ‘sharp-eyed follower of movements at the plant’ knew where two barges were headed and at what time – valuable journalistic information:

“Amid the mess of Solent shipping information was a meaningful signal relating to the Vestas story – the movement of the barge that takes wind turbine blades from the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight to the mainland.”

Do you have suggestions for sources of ‘signals intelligence’ journalism? Or examples of where it has been done well?

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