Despite some open data initiatives – and calls from the Coalition Government for an army of armchair auditors who will scrutinise public data "at a level that allows the public to see what is happening on their streets" – the results have yet to live up to the hyperlocal hyperbole.
This should not really be overly surprising. After all, if it takes a certain type of person to set up and run a hyperlocal website, then a hyperlocal publisher with the skills, time and inclination to pursue data journalism will be rarer still. And for a time-pressed hyperlocal journalist there is of course always the risk that data mining will not throw up anything of particular interest, and the time invested chasing down a story will come to nothing.
No wonder then that Richard Osley, deputy editor, Camden New Journal, came to the conclusion "I reckon a few armchair auditors might decide to watch telly instead."
Nonetheless, opportunities in this space do exist for hyperlocal publishers, and the sector risks missing out on great stories if it isn't able to embrace this new form of journalism.
Perhaps more importantly, local communities may also miss out on stories which matter to them, particularly around issues related to democratic scrutiny.
To help redress this, here are five suggestions to help further grow and embed hyperlocal data journalism in the UK.
1. Using data to create niche blogs or stories
Given the plurality of news sources increasingly used by audiences, publishers may want to explore the idea of responding to a major issue with a unique series of stories, or potentially even a standalone website.
Birmingham City University students showed how this might work when in 2010 they set up a hyperlocal blog – birminghambudgetcuts.blogspot.com – aimed at the 50,000 public sector workers in the region. The site specifically focused on budget cuts and how they were affecting people.
2. Using data to illustrate key points
As both social media and many websites increasingly go more visual, so hyperlocal sites also need to consider creative ways to present their stories. DNAinfo.com New York used maps and infographics to help demonstrate the conclusions of their analysis of the city's 2011 stop and frisk numbers.
This enabled them to identify the top 25 locations where people were stopped-and-frisked by the police, as well as the extent to which black and Hispanic New Yorkers are stopped-and-frisked far more than any other demographic. Their analysis also showed that more people are stopped at the Port Authority Bus Terminal – regardless of race – than any other location.
3. Using FoI to unlock hitherto hidden data
FoI (Freedom of Information) requests can be a useful means to unearth data which might otherwise not be published. As a result, it can offer great potential as a source for stories. Saddleworth News demonstrated this effectively following an FoI into the cost and usage of the Oldham Says website, revealing that the site had received just 2,548 unique visits in the six months to the end of September 2010.
"With a total of £25,544 having been spent on setting up the site, that's roughly equivalent to an incredible £10 for each and every click. The site's readership has been particularly low in the last two months, with just 268 people logging on in August and 296 doing so in September."
4. Unlocking the power of the many (or at least a few): networked journalism
Given that many hyperlocal websites are run by an individual, or a very small number of volunteers, having the time and skills to embrace data journalism can be a challenge. One solution to this issue may be more networked journalism, bringing together people around specific questions or issues as the Birmingham-based website Help Me Investigate did.
Working in this way may require a change of approach for some publishers – and, of course, recruiting and managing the efforts of volunteers can be a time-consuming. Nevertheless, as Professor Jeff Jarvis has argued:
"Professional and amateur, journalist and citizen may now work together to gather and share more news in more ways to more people than was ever possible before. Networked journalism is founded on a simple, self-evident and self-interested truth: We can do more together than we can apart … This, I believe, is the natural state of media: two-way and collaborative."
5. Data driven campaigns and partnership working
Finally there are also opportunities to use data as a tool for partnerships, with hyperlocals identifying stories as a grassroots level which then get escalated at a wider local, regional or national level.
One simple way to do this is to embed the Fix My Street widget to your site as Lichfield Live has done.
Another way is to create data driven stories which then get picked up by wider media. Perhaps surprisingly this doesn't happen as often as you might think. Writing for Journalism.co.uk in June 2010 Polis director Charlie Beckett, cited the experience of Kings Cross Environment founder Will Perrin:
Thus far, "there's been only one example of collaboration [with local newspapers]. I found statistics on ambulance call-outs in response to assault incidents. They were rising massively but violent crime was only rising a small amount ... The newspaper picked up on my research, ran some more maths on the numbers, and ran a story".
No doubt, over time, this situation will change.
Final thoughts: working together and moving to the next stage in the sector's development
Alongside these five areas of opportunity, I would also like to see the sector come together more to help develop data journalism skills, share best practice and explore opportunities for partnership working with other hyperlocals.
One potential area to do this could be around joint investigations. It would be fascinating to see sites in major cities such as Birmingham or Manchester coming together on a semi-regular basis to jointly explore key datasets around subjects such as crime, public spaces or health.
This would enable them to tell the story relevant to their own patch as well as build a city-wide or national picture around topics which always enjoy a strong local dimension.
The second version of HelpMeInvestigate – which focuses on supporting a network of community editors around specific issues – offers a potential model for this and it would be interesting to see if this approach could be expanded to other topics and collaborators.
This could be particularly effective if combined with a trade body (and idea I previously advocated on this site last year,) which can promote training and the sharing of best practice. Such a body could help improve data journalism knowledge and training across the sector and in the process help to take hyperlocal media – as well as hyperlocal data journalism – to the next level.
Given the increasing wealth of public data being made available, it is not unrealistic to expect that the hyperlocal sector will, over time, embrace data journalism more than it has at present. But if that process can be speeded up, perhaps by embracing some of these recommendations, then that is something which both audiences and publisher can benefit from.
This is a specially adapted extract from Data Journalism: Mapping the Future edited by John Mair with Richard Lance Keeble and Neil Fowler, which was published by Abramis last month. Damian Radcliffe is an honorary research fellow at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.
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