Earlier this month, I attended the Open Data Institute’s annual summit. I heard stimulating speakers from business, government, the arts, start-ups and charities and left buzzing with enthusiasm, inspiration and ideas. I’ll be sharing just some of my thoughts in a series of posts over the next few days.
The media world is increasingly data-hungry. From specialists such as Vox and FiveThirtyEight all the way up to the major players like the Guardian’s famed data blog, everyone’s experimenting with it. Even Trinity Mirror’s now-defunct Ampp3d project left behind it a solid core of savvy journos, keen to create their own insights from original sources.
But when it comes to open data, journos are much less interested. Why? Surely they should jump at the chance. After all, there must be loads of fresh stories to uncover in each newly available dataset – more when you start layering them together.
Former BBC editor and summit speaker Jonathan Stoneman summed it up nicely: “News is something someone, somewhere, doesn’t want you to know.”
By that logic, open data just isn’t news. How can it be if it’s simply given to you by the organisation that owns it? Surely the business wants you to see it – and wants everyone to know what the data tells you.
There’s no legwork involved there. No investigative nous. To many journalists, it’s as bad as advertising. Much better to do an FOI request. That’s how you uncover the real secrets.
Except there is real journalistic value in opening datasets. For a start, data contains leads. And putting these datasets to work can point you in the direction of some really interesting discoveries – stats can show you things that you can’t find by simply skimming a press release, or requesting specifics based on a hunch.
Just take a look at this brilliant piece on CityMetric from earlier in the year. By simply analysing airport connectivity data in Excel, the author provided an interesting counterpoint to Heathrow’s argument for expansion. It turns out that the UK’s hub airport is not in the UK at all. It’s Amsterdam Schiphol.
Of course, this takes a lot of work. But there’s an army of armchair auditors ready and willing to lend a hand. I’m sure you’ve come across a real Excel geek, inexplicably excited when they try out a whizzy new function. These guys love this stuff!
And that’s when open data becomes a powerful tool. By using open datasets to generate leads and following up with FOI requests to uncover the stories that people would rather keep secret, you force transparency.
To me, that’s what makes great journalism so valuable.