Spreadsheet with pen
Credit: By Jorge Franganillo on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The investigative journalism site Help Me Investigate (HMI) has teamed up with the Birmingham Mail to launch regional datablog, "Behind The Numbers".

According to the project's home page, the initiative is mainly concerned with information regarding hospitals, schools, crime, policing, business, sports, arts and culture with data being sourced by both the newspaper and HMI.

Since its launch in 2009, HMI has provided a platform for journalists and members of the public to undertake numerous investigations in the public interest which have then been used by regional and national news organisations.

Journalist and academic Paul Bradshaw, who co-founded HMI, approached the Birmingham Mail after a number of meetings with a view to establishing a collaborative relationship between the two organisations that would also benefit local students.

"To my knowledge this is the first truly regional data blog," said Bradshaw, "and ideally I'd like to see more regional collaborations, or at least regional data blogs like this. Help Me Investigate is quite informal so it's more a matter of supporting people in getting access to data and if that happens more in other parts of the country then that's something that could be really valuable."

"I think it's a great opportunity for students at Birmingham City University to get some of their stories in the local paper," he added.

One such student is Duarte Romero Varela, who is doing an MA in Online Journalism, and explained that one aspect of the project involves Behind the Numbers releasing the data for published articles from the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail.

"For example, recently the Mail published an article about eateries in Brum that fail to meet basic hygiene requirements," said Romero Varela. "As the journalistic work behind that was based on the search application of the FSA (Food Standards Authority), what I did was use an API to get the data in an accessible format, clean it and present the numbers in a different way. Like, in a map. This post is already finished and I believe is going to be published soon.

"As you can imagine the process works in two different ways. We can support stories written by Trinity Mirror journalists with data but we can also propose the topic and do the research. We have created a list of possible stories that we would like to investigate and when we have time we choose one of those. For example, now I'm waiting for the reply to a FOI request about the spending of Birmingham City Council in Starbucks."

The first story to be produced focuses on waiting times at regional Accident and Emergency wards, with graphs and tables provided by Bradshaw's team, and assistant content editor for the Birmingham Mail Ben Hurst - who is overseeing the Mail's involvement with the project - sees this as the first of many articles that will engage readers in a new way.

"You can get the information but it's what you do with it that's the most important thing," he said. "You can put the information out there and say 'What do you make of this?' But people want more than that and want it analysed.

"When we've had a story in the past that might involve every ward in Birmingham – for example cannabis factories being busted or the number of rat infestations by ward – when that information has been whittled down to an almost neighbourhood level then people really respond to it and that shows in hits and also in sales of the paper. It gives the person a real connection with the data."

Bradshaw said that this new wave of available data, through Freedom of Information requests, institutional transparency and leaks, gives everybody, not just journalists, the opportunity to find out more about what is happening in their area, adding that HMI can play a significant facilitatory role.

The expanded version of his website has come to focus on supporting community editors on specific areas such as health, education and welfare and he said there is potential for greater involvement in other regions in the future.

Hurst also saw the potential for more regional datablogs.

"Journalism is changing and I think possibly there's going to be a more collaborative approach to things," he said, adding that "the way people communicate now" means that stories and investigations do not just come from journalists.

"Websites such as whatdotheyknow show how normal people are looking into issues and digging for information themselves."

He added: "We don't know exactly where it's going but it's an interesting evolution of what's going on [in investigative journalism] and hopefully it will take off elsewhere as well. I can't see it not happening elsewhere."

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