Credit: Photo by Jaanus Jagomägi on Unsplash

Twelve local news journalists will receive data journalism training on the BBC’s Shared Data Unit (SDU) as the scheme returns in 2020.

The SDU is one of three strands of the public broadcaster’s Local News Partnership (LNP), run in collaboration with the News Media Association. To date, 120 news organisations covering around 900 local news titles have signed up as partners to receive different forms of training and resources.

The 12-week training scheme, based in Birmingham, sees regional journalists with little to no prior experience in data journalism learn how to search through public datasets and produce data-led stories tailored for local audiences.

In recent years, the unit has helped journalists - also known as 'secondees' - tap into largely untouched data sources and generate hundreds of local news stories. Next year, twelve more journalists from LNP organisations will have the chance to take advantage of the available training, by applying before 20 December 2019.

Prior to the launch of the SDU in 2018, the only regional news organisation with a dedicated data journalism team was Reach plc. It was set up 2013 to work on long-term investigations and produce daily data-led local stories. It has since grown into the largest data unit in the UK.

Realising this, Pete Sherlock, assistant editor, SDU said that BBC wanted to help other news groups develop similar data units to provide public interest stories to its regional titles. Through the SDU, regional journalists learn the crucial skills needed to navigate today's data landscape.

"There is an abundance of data being released on a daily basis. The role of a journalist is shifting from hunting and gathering to sifting, processing, analysing and finding relevance to our audiences," explained Sherlock.

"Our audiences do not have the time or the technical skills to go through a government dataset to find what is pertinent to their neighbourhood."

The SDU aims to provide regional journalists with these skills to pass down to their newsrooms. Around two weeks of the scheme is spent getting to grips with 'the data fundamentals' of using Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets, which Sherlock said 90 per cent of data journalism consists of.

The journalists receive one-to-one training and video resources from Sherlock’s team, before moving on to identifying where they can source public datasets: open government data portals, Office for National Statistics, as well as FOI requests and requesting information from other organisations.

Reporters then learn to use open-source tools for a range of tasks, from removing errors in spreadsheets to visualising data, as well as more advanced tasks, such as scraping data from websites as a source.

They work on a project of their choice while incorporating the skills they pick up along the way.

For example, Dominic Gilbert, crime correspondent, Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News, investigated gaps in provision of legal aid across the UK by analysing data from the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency. Sherlock said that getting journalists to work on a project of their choosing is the best way to develop data journalism skills.

"Learning to code can be daunting, you don’t know where to start as it's a new language. But if there is a specific task that you can overcome, that will forever be in your toolkit."

Previous 'secondees' of the SDU have gone on to create their own national data sets to produce regional stories with these newfound skills.

JPI Data Unit

One of those is at news group JPI Media, overseen by Claire Wilde, news editor, data and investigations, JPI Media and one of the first secondees on the scheme.

The unit was introduced January this year, and run with fellow secondee Aimee Stanton, central content reporter, JPI Media based in Edinburgh. Together, they send out story packs based on national statistics derived from public datasets or FOI requests.

When Wilde looked into near misses between drones and aircraft over the last five years, she sent out template stories to around 150 local titles to develop local angles to the story.

It puts to use newfound skills in converting PDFs into Excel, how to analyse the data to work out patterns, how to produce stats, opening co-ordinates into Google Maps - and publishing the investigation as an interactive data visualisation on the Flourish platform to offer a national overview.

JPI also offers reporters a three-part e-learning series on finding data for stories with an emphasis on open data. It covers responsible use of FOI, spreadsheet examples of finding stories in a database and - to come - presenting data using case studies.

Wilde said that the SDU has helped encourage their newsrooms and their competitors across local news to put aside traditional rivalries and work together.

"Competition will always be there, but we're more open to collaboration than we once were. I'm more than happy to share data with other journalists once our local titles have had a chance to use it. The data journalism world is a very collaborative one."

Newsquest Data Unit

Elsewhere, fellow news group Newsquest also launched a specialised data unit in June 2019, led by SDU secondees Vicky Gayle and Joanna Morris on a full-time basis as reporters for the Newsquest Data Unit with Bev Holder, who remains part-time as chief reporter and data investigations reporter for Stourbridge News.

The unit produces an exclusive data-led splash or hard-hitting feature for Newsquest titles across the country. Like the SDU and the JPI Data Unit, story packs are produced from nationwide data, including top lines and data for each area it covers, along with context, comments and case studies which reporters can use or take inspiration from to create their own regional story.

"This is a set of skills that allows us to build upon our abilities to scrutinise and hold authorities to account. It’s also incredibly important for us to ensure that the human interest element of our investigations is forefront, rather than the number crunching," said Morris.

The reporters also lead training days and mentoring where they pass down knowledge from the SDU to regional reporters. This covers all the ground on data online, the basics of spreadsheets, cleaning datasets, sorting, filtering and pivoting spreadsheets to analyse data quickly, livening up stories with charts and graphics, and retrieving data from effective use of FOIs.

Newsquest reporters devote one day a week to work on national data-led investigations for the company. They check in with the team once a week on Skype for an editorial meeting where ideas are discussed and shaped, and are tasked with producing regional variations of the unit’s national investigations.

Each member of the team produces local stories for their title regularly, but national investigations have also allowed newspapers to create their own versions of stories. A good example of is a national FOI request into education provisions for children supplied by local councils. It lead to differing stories in local areas such as Greenwich versus a more regional story covering the north of England.

Morris explained that it is vital to convey the human story that data can represent, and that reporters should have the skills to source, normalise and contextualise data relevant to their patch. She also expressed the need for journalists to submit well thought out FOI requests, as well as challenge responses where necessary, to secure exclusive stories.

What skills will journalists need in 2020? Find out at Newsrewired on the 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to for the full agenda and tickets

Note: This article was updated to include further mention of the Reach plc data unit.

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