Make the available, accessible
Why the tech community should join the Bureau Local
The view from where I sit is a unique one.
I’m lucky to have one toe in journalism and another in the tech world. I’ve got a background in journalism in Montreal but moved to Cardiff in 2014 to get my MSc in Computational Journalism.
I knew I wanted to learn programming skills to better my journalism. What I didn’t know is that a year of intensive coding would ultimately turn my journalism career into one that looks completely different than it did before.
One in which I search Stack Overflow on a daily basis, explore new Python libraries, go through R tutorials in my evenings and regularly write scrapers to monitor and collect information from organisations I am investigating.
During my eight month stint at Trinity Mirror’s data unit, I saw larger media organisations across the UK start to embrace technology by setting up ‘digital’ and ‘data’ units.
While exciting, this means only a few journalists at the larger media organisations are given the opportunity to make sense of vast amounts of information and data. And therefore, much greater numbers of local reporters and citizens are at a loss for how to make sense of data in their own communities.
The Bureau Local offers an opportunity to challenge this. The solution isn’t to call on journalists alone. Technologists can, and need to, play a part.
From my own experience, tech can help journalism by making the available, accessible.
Technologists can bring resources that would transform what depleted local newsrooms can do, and that they could otherwise not afford.
Let me put you in their shoes.
Lack of access to skills
Say you are a reporter that wants to investigative the rate of certain drugs prescribed by GPs in your area.
You go to the Department of Health website and try to download the dataset for the latest month of prescriptions.
You have no computer science training but you are pretty decent in Excel, so you try to open the file — but there is a problem. The file for one month of the prescription data is over 10,000,000 rows. The maximum number of rows in an Excel file is 1,048,576.
Excel shuts down and so does your investigation.
Lack of access to time
Now you want to look into drug crimes in your area for a given year and compare the figures to those in other places.
This requires you to download the monthly data on all crimes for each of the 45 police forces. That’s 540 CSVs (12 times 45); then you need to sort each one for drug-related crimes before copy/pasting all the force files together to get a complete dataset of drug offences.
For someone trained in Python or R, this requires writing a very quick and simple seven lines of code (and 22.6 seconds)— but to a reporter who only has Excel in their toolkit, it would be a tedious and time-consuming process.
This is before we even combine other drug-related datasets or expand the investigation to include other offences or multiple years.
The time and complexity of such an endeavour, and ones like this, are what make these investigations difficult, and in some cases impossible, for local reporters.
Joining forces we can turn transparency into accountability
There have been huge advances in the availability of information in recent years. But collecting, storing and analysing the huge amount data now at our disposal remains in the hands of a few.
More available data should mean more and better journalism. But lack of access to time-saving tech means investigations that need to dip into larger datasets are impossible or impractical for the average reporter to pursue.
This has dangerous implications for our society. If information about authorities and corporations is difficult or impossible to access, their activities become opaque and their power cannot be held to account.
Cue the Bureau Local. We see a huge opportunity for a body of people to come together to turn available data into accessible data and thus turn transparency into accountability.
We are bringing together reporters, technologists, community-minded citizens and specialist contributors from across the country who care about transparency and public interest journalism. Together we will dig into large-scale datasets to find and tell the stories that matter on a regional level.
Coders and developers have built a growing tech scene by openly learning from each other and building on what came before them. The Bureau Local believes investigative journalism can use this same approach to advance local accountability — but it needs the tech community as a partner.
We are not trying to be innovative or ambitious simply because we want to do something cool and fresh, but because the times we are in require us to do so.
This is why I joined the Bureau Local and why you should too.