Help Me
Last month open source, UK-based investigative journalism project, Help Me (HMI) generated its first news story since the launch of the project, set up by journalism lecturer and blogger Paul Bradshaw.

The story in the Birmingham Post on parking ticket hotspots in the city made use of data released in a Freedom of Information request made by the HMI team.

Working in collaboration with the site, the Post and its sister titles, have benefited from similar leads since the parking story. asked Tom Scotney, the Post reporter behind the original piece, for his views on working with HMI and what it can bring to news organisations.

Not long ago, the Birmingham Post had an exclusive of sorts. An article revealing the location, time and date of every one of the 130,000-odd parking tickets handed out by council enforcers in Birmingham over the last year.

While the article went into the paper with my byline on it, what made the piece unique was that it was the first piece of journalism to come out of the Help Me Investigate project, a couple of months after it was kickstarted with public funding from 4ip and a local media body.

Help Me Investigate was set up by a bunch of brainy journalists/thinkers, largely based here in Birmingham. It lets users suggest topics for investigation, and help complete those that have been suggested by carrying out various tasks suggested by the HMI.

They've even got a 'real' journalist on board, Freedom of Information (FOI) expert Heather Brooke, who originally started the investigation into parking tickets handed out in Birmingham.

The site isn't specifically based around local investigations, but lends itself particularly well to them - especially with so many regional papers lacking the manpower or experience to do the kind of rigorous investigative journalism that takes place there.

I'd signed up for the site early on, but frankly hadn't contributed very much, so when Paul Bradshaw let me know the parking investigation had been finished I was keen to see what the Post could do. Birmingham City Council had put the statistics out as a massive spreadsheet, and HMI user Neil Houston had used his data skills (see his blog post here) to make some kind of sense of it, picking out the most ticketed spots, the top time of day for tickets and interestingly, the upward trend in tickets being handed out.

When I first brought this up in the office, one comment that came up was, 'well if this is just an FOI request, why is this any different to what a journalist on a newspaper might do?' My response: firstly, why does it need to be different; and secondly, if a journalist could do this, why haven't they yet?

From my side of things, all I did was to call up the council press office to get the official reasoning behind these statistics. Something anyone could technically do, but I suspect was a lot easier for me calling from a publication the press office is used to dealing with.

So what does this mean for us here in the 'mainstream media'? Paul Bradshaw said at one point that for the professional journalists, HMI was more about what they put in, rather than what they took out. That's not necessarily true - after all, haven't I already got out of it more than I've put in - a nice story with free data and number crunching in exchange for a quick call to the council?

After the story had gone in the Post, Neil said he wasn't sure how he felt about a for-profit organisation making money from a story he had voluntarily put time into. I don't see it this way. This was a collaborative effort, and I think it's important to remember that newspapers can have their part to play in an open collaboration just as much as the general public.

Like any other HMI user it's about looking at what the paper can do uniquely towards a project - in this case, use its access to power to get an answer, and then use its network of readers to bring the story to a wider audience than it might have got just as an online investigation.

But what's most important when working like this is to recognise that you're part of a process, not the end result of it. Which means giving credit where it's due, getting the facts right, and making clear in the article the process by which it was created. All the sort of things that ought to be standard practice for a reporter anyway, but are more crucial then ever when using a source like this. And the risks are higher - get things wrong and you not only look stupid, but also like you're stealing the work of others.

So there's no room for complacency - but get it right and you're becoming part of an investigative team that's bigger, more diverse and more skilled than any newsroom could ever be.

Tom Scotney is a reporter at the Birmingham Post.

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