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Gone are the days when most investigative and data stories were produced with only the national picture in mind. Recently, multiple initiatives have addressed the need to connect with an audience outside London and other major urban areas.

The second annual Data Journalism UK conference was the place to see that in action this week. Organised by Paul Bradshaw, who leads the MA in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University, alongside colleague Yemisi Akinbobola and Stirling University’s Eddy Borges Rey, the event saw over 70 delegates from journalism, data science and the digital sector gather at the BBC in Birmingham.

The Bureau Local is investigating at the community level

Nine months, 96 cities, more than 100 local stories and 430 members later, The Bureau Local’s Megan Lucero was full of confidence for the new investigative organisation’s upcoming projects.

After five years reporting for the Times and Sunday Times, Lucero left the newspaper to go more local by heading up the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s new Bureau Local project.

"We have to send our journalists where the stories are," says Lucero. "We’re not essentially building something new; we’re just folding into existing communities better."

As many communities and reporters feel left behind by the bigger, national outlets, the Bureau Local team was created to address the need to reconnect with the public.

"When you don't think someone is covering your issues, there's a disconnect with the media in question. We need more public interest stories at a local level. So we focused on building a community and network system at a local level to deliver this."

Bureau Local shares its data with journalists, invites them to their Slack channel, and in return asks only that reporters credit the organisation and respect an agreed embargo date. The channel also doubles as a collaborative platform where reporters are also encouraged to pitch story ideas.

In October, a piece by The Bureau Local and The Bristol Cable revealed that thousands of Britons were stopped for immigration spot checks in the UK. Multiple regional outlets covered the story too, focusing on the local data.

BBC Shared Data Unit to train reporters and supply stories

Pete Sherlock, assistant editor at the BBC, spoke about the organisation’s Shared Data Unit, which is recruiting reporters from regional media for 3-month secondments. The aim is to introduce local reporters to data journalism who will then bring back those skills to their newsrooms.

The Data Unit is also about collaboration and sharing resources, working on data-driven leads that focus on local issues: "We've had many sign-ups for this, and these stories go to over 600 titles across the country," said Sherlock.

The Shared Data Unit spends a similar amount of time on its stories to The Bureau Local: "Each project takes about 4-6 weeks. We put together a story pack which we distribute to the partners who have signed up. We make a spreadsheet and also include comments from experts we contacted. This has been the base for close to 80 stories so far.”

Urbs Media is automating storytelling

Urbs Media, a new start-up aiming to help local outlets to find and produce open data stories more quickly, was also represented at the conference by founder Alan Renwick.

Their RADAR tool, currently in pilot phase, is using automated data mining to uncover patterns and story leads. It can also generate multiple story templates for articles through the use of Natural Language Generation (NLG).

A concern for local communities and accountability helped inspire the founding of Urbs Media, Renwick said.

The founders didn’t feel people knew enough about the stories happening in their community, with broader crime rates for instance being overlooked as reporting focused on individual crimes.

Urbs Media's tool, expected to roll out in full form by May 2018, comes at a time of scarce resources in the local media.

But this automation of journalistic tasks is a hot topic. "We got about a month of 'These bastards have invented robots that are going to destroy journalists,' before it dropped off," said Renwick.

"But humans who copy and paste stories and share them across the whole world aren’t too different."

Critics fear automated tools like this may lead to further staff cuts, rather than just filling a void, but Renwick hoped that these emerging technologies will not be used in such a way.

"This is a way of generating content at a low cost, but what I hope does not happen is it leads to further cuts."

Steve Carufel is an online writer from Montreal and current postgraduate student studying multiplatform journalism at Birmingham City University. He is primarily interested in data stories about politics, the internet, digital culture and social sciences. He writes for the Quebec-based Geekbecois blog (in French) as well as the Birmingham Eastside. He can be found tweeting here and his portfolio is avilable online here.

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