Data Journalism will save Open Data

Talk of transparency and efficiency has disappeared from the political rhetoric. Data journalism can be the catalyst of a public sector data revival.

Enjoy the licence

In the good old times (so to say) of the Coalition Government, data-driven transparency was perceived as a revolutionary idea on which political capital could be spent. Inspired by the (ill-fated) ideal of armchair auditors, ministers were busy releasing data, engaging with users, and setting up transparency boards, to the point where each Department had one. Needless to say, and regardless of where you put the blame — Brexit, different majorities, Trump, the Russians — things have moved on considerably since then. Not more than three years ago, fresh out of my ODUG days, I lamented the disappearance of Government engagement. This speech by Francis Maude, then Minister for the Cabinet Office and open data supremo, hasn’t aged well:

To paraphrase Victor Hugo, fighting against transparency is an idea whose time has come

Transparency is no longer high up in the Government’s agenda. The setting up of a FOI Commission to review (i.e. curtail) freedom of information rights speaks volume about the current political mood. But transparency wasn’t all that there was to open data. The idea that efficiency and performance-enhancement could be achieved through the use of data had its own appeal. Public services could be “run on open data”. Naturally, this idea also revealed itself as tech utopia, with the transition to a boldly named Data Government Programme which might be delivering but, if it is, it’s certainly doing so under the radar. Aside from a few areas of excellence, such as DEFRA — where experience had shown that there is value in data long before open data was a thing — data-driven openness has left the centre stage. I already explained my views of this in my article The Open Data Delusion, dated May 2016.

Enters data journalism. Perceived by many as just a way to keep readers for longer on an ads-based page thanks to shiny visuals, data journalism is a lot more. Data journalists are effectively becoming the stalwarts of the transparency movement, working at a level close to people’s hearts and ordinary lives. Even when pieces are simply showing electoral data at a local level, as in the famous “spikes” visualization of German elections by the Berliner Morgenpost, data driven journalism can offer a more engaging (and potentially transparent) way for readers to understand their local communities and the issues they are facing.

One of the spikes maps from the Berliner Morgenpost

The potential of data journalism, however, exceeds the mere understanding of problems. The Bureau Local has been showing this to the media world. There are many opportunities to produce data journalism that scrutinises and brings the authorities to account. The Bureau’s recent investigation into domestic violence is a crystalline example of what data can achieve (note: I helped the Bureau with some mapping). Data was collected in any form available (open data/FOI), cleaned, aggregated, partially interpreted, and shared with local journalists to produce local stories on the side of the national ones. Sterling storytelling was enabled by a level of data research that has no equal within the public sector, and resulted in public service journalism: the stories point to the impact funding cuts had on local services which, in turn, had a direct impact on people’s lives. Exposing malpractice is a traditional aim of investigative journalism; doing so with data in such a collaborative way, with potential effects on redesigning public services, is the novel feature. It is also allowing citizens across the country to see data as a weapon to keep the powerful in check. In a the post-Grenfell world, this is more than just an appealing idea: it’s call to arms with superior ethics to the concept of armchair auditors.

One of Paul Bradshaw’s 10 principles of data journalism says that

“We should seek to empower citizens to exercise their rights and responsibilities”

While this is intended to encourage the public to act upon journalism, it is also a reckoning that journalism can help educate it to be more data-savvy, increasing its capability to perceive and analyse malpractice in a measured, well argued, evidence-based way. That’s why I also support the idea of linking data-driven articles to an explanation of methodology and data, that I’m in support of the idea of replicability in data journalism as much as in academic research, and that it should be as open as possible, as Andy Dickinson suggests.

If this sounds too abstract or too negative — after all, the Grenfell fire and domestic abuse are examples of bad decisions being exposed rather than a constructive way to produce good decisions — it is just because such stories are incredibly powerful and they offer a massive opportunity of turning lives around. But there are plenty of stories highlighting positive, practical outcomes. Take this chapter by Teresa Jolley from a recently published book on Data Journalism: in the West Midlands, data journalists and transport professionals working together have paved the way to more funding and better transport policy. This highly collaborative modus operandi is the key aspects of the current generation of data journalists, and it feels distant from the secretive approach of earlier, traditional journalism. This transformation is contagious, and extends to such cross-sector networks that can really bring improvements to local areas.

The open data movement got some things wrong, I believe. I repeat this mantra often, these days: transparency should have been the ethos of the movement, not its final goal. This is because it doesn’t scale, or grow organically. Nor it should have focussed just on data-driven operations. As a movement, open data cannot do either of these well, but it’s taking a long time for us all to understand it. It is, slowly, abandoning, the idea of an all-encompassing approach to open data to become more problem-driven. This is where data journalism can show the way: it is, by its nature, issue-driven. Transparency comes in decades-long political cycles: FOI in the late 90s, open data in the 2010s. Data journalism is keeping the flame of transparency burning, and it is enabling operational transformation —and in doing so, I feel, it is definitely saving open data.