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Currybet: There is a lot of data journalism to be done on riots

August 12th, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Data, Editors' pick

In a blog post today (12 August), information architect at the Guardian, Martin Belam, calls on journalists to make the most of the data now available in relation to the riots which took place this week.

He says using the data is “vital” and the resulting journalism will have the power to “help us untangle the truth from those prejudiced assumptions”. But he adds about the importance of ensuring the data is not misinterpreted in time to come.

The impact of the riots is going to be felt in data-driven stories for months and years to come. I’ve no doubt that experienced data crunchers like Simon Rogers or Conrad Quilty-Harper will factor it into their work, but I anticipate that in six months time we’ll be seeing stories about a sudden percentage rise in crime in Enfield or Central Manchester, without specific reference to the riots. The journalists writing them won’t have isolated the events of the last few days as exceptions to the general trend.

… There can be genuine social consequences to the misinterpretation of data. If the postcodes in Enfield become marked as a place where crime is now more likely as a result of one night of violence, then house prices could be depressed and insurance costs will rise, meaning the effects of the riots will still be felt long after broken windows are replaced. It is the responsibility of the media to use this data in a way that helps us understand the riots, not in a way that prolongs their negative impact.

Read his full post here…

This followed a blog post by digital strategist Kevin Anderson back on Sunday, when he discussed how the circumstances provide an opportunity for data journalists to work with social scientists and use data to test speculated theories, with reference to the data journalism which took place after the 1967 riots in Detroit.

… I’m sure that we’ll see hours of speculation on television and acres of newsprint positing theories. However, theories need to be tested. The Detroit riots showed that a partnership amongst social scientists, foundations, the local community and journalists can prove or disprove these theories and hopefully provide solutions rather than recriminations.

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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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