To help regional media use public data to generate more local stories, the BBC has created Shared Data Unit, a project aimed at sharing public data with local newsrooms and providing data journalism training.

The broadcaster shares datasets from public authorities with over 700 regional media outlets, including hyperlocal and local newspapers and local televisions.

“We brought traditional rivals together under a collaborative umbrella,” says Pete Sherlock, BBC assistant editor, Shared Data Unit.

“It's given journalists the time and freedom to work on long-form, off-diary data investigations.”

Among successful stories produced by the BBC Shared Data Unit was a series of articles on how rising car use and cuts to public funding impacted public transport. The story has been widely shared and adapted by regional media, including Southern Daily Echo, Lancashire Post, and Stray FM.

“It’s not only about having big stories that will work on the national BBC website, but that will work for regional media too,” said Sherlock.

He explained that many regional journalists — and their audiences — struggle to interpret data and understand how to get stories from it.

“You can’t blame the UK government though, as it is pretty good when it comes to open data,” says Sherlock.

The data portal has over 36,000 datasets that represent 25 ministerial departments, 385 agencies and public bodies, and 12 public corporations, including the BBC. That’s a lot of data and a lot of potential for a story.”

The truth is, 93 per cent of these datasets were opened less than 10 times, and a lot of information sits there unexplored and untouched.

And that’s where the Shared Data Unit comes in. It provides a toolkit for journalists on topics such as crime, teaching, transports, or housing, that includes clean data and a guide on how to interpret it. The data is then shared with regional partners so they can tell the story to their specific audiences.

“This initiative has now generated over 300 stories,” says Sherlock.

As well as data sharing, another mission of the Shared Data Unit is to provide data journalism training.

In November 2017, the BBC offered the first three regional journalists a three-month training course on data journalism skills such as scraping, cleaning, processing and visualising data, and how to tell public interest stories.

The idea is that three media companies – who would normally be rivals – work together to publish local stories. According to Sherlock, collaboration between newsrooms can be a huge advantage to audiences.

The second generation of trainees are currently Bev Holder from Stourbridge News, Nancy Cole from ITV News, who is the first trainee with a television background, and Aisha Iqbal from the Yorkshire Evening Post.

The Shared Data Unit is not the only project aimed at strengthening local media. Another initiative, the BBC Local Democracy reporting service, has created 150 local reporter jobs with regional journalists being funded by the BBC while still employed by their local newsrooms.

The reporters cover councils and other regional institutions. Sherlock said they already produced over 13,000 stories on local democracy that would otherwise be untold.

Finally, the BBC News Hub gives regional websites access to video and audio material which can be used and adapted for local audiences after it had been broadcasted nationally.

Pete Sherlock spoke about the Shared Data Unit project at the European Data and Computational Journalism Conference that took place on 20 - 21 June 2018 in Cardiff.

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