My long silence here is due to the fact that every spare minute of my day job has lately involved building a rather complicated WordPress installation. More blogging on my own time would probably drive me a bit mad.
Part of the project that I’m working will include the overdue relaunch of the blog version of my Press Gazette column, “Fleet Street 2.0“. For those of you who don’t subscribe to the print edition (shock, horror), the column has for the past two weeks looked at some of the ways that Press Gazette’s campaign against the Government’s proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act fees regime relates to the future development of online journalism.
The greatest promise of the UK FOIA is that by engendering more openness in the public sector, it could begin to facilitate what is sometimes called “computer-assisted reporting”. Investigative journalism based on original analysis of large volumes of data are far more common in the United States and Scandinavia, where better-established FOI regimes have placed a comparatively huge volume of electronic public records into the hands of journalists who aren’t put off by spreadsheets, databases and GIS software.
For the last few decades, these techniques have been hidden away in newsrooms, where a handful of journalists used them in reporting investigative projects. To the reader, the data underlying the stories it produced generally remained hidden.
But today, presenting structured data in a way that users can search and interpret for themselves is possible online. CAR now involves new forms of presenting information as well as an established set of research techniques.
As Derek Willis, the database editor at WashingtonPost.com, has written, the web is the “natural canvas” for computer-assisted reporting. Journalists can present public data that they have obtained online, providing the tools that individual readers need to drill down to the information that is most directly relevant to them.
Few UK news organisations have really taken to heart Adrian Holovaty’s view that journalism should include the the collection and presentation of structured data. But the way Government information policy affects this nascent form of journalism can be seen by the experience of people outside traditional news organisations who have — such as those who are building mashup web sites.
OnOneMap, for example, recently added a feature that allows users to plot all 60,000 mobile phone base stations onto a Google Map.
The site’s founder, Philip Sheldrake told me that he produced the database he needed for his phone-masts mashup by “scraping” the output of Ofcom’s publicly-available Sitefinder database. Using scripts to automatically collect large datasets from public web sites and putting them into a structured form that can be analyses is also one of the skills of investigative journalists specialising in CAR techniques.
The OnOneMap mashup is a great example of something that has only becaome possible because of the Freedom of Information Act. As Steve Wood, (now formerly) of the UK Freedom of Information & Open Government Blog pointed out, the geographical coordinates that make OnOneMap’s mashup possible only became available on Sitefinder last September after the Information Commissioner ruled that Ofcom should release it following a request under the Environmental Information Regulations (a version of the Freedom of Information Act that applies to all forms of data about environmental issues).
Complex requests, like ones for large datasets that allow geo-coding mashups like this one, are much more likely to be rejected if the Government implements its proposals for the Freedom of Information fees regime. The Government’s plans would make it much easier for public officials to reach the £600 cost threshold beyond which they may turn away FoI requests.
The data used by OnOneMap has also been noted by the “Free Our Data” campaign that the Guardian’s technology section has been running for the past year. That campaign highlights another issue in information policy that is limiting the development of this form of journalism in Britain: Crown Copyright.
Unlike the United States, where public data is generally copyright-free, Crown Copyright can be used in Britain to prevent the republication of public sector information even once it has been forced into the public domain by the Freedom of Information Act or other open government laws.
For most news stories this is not a problem, because reporting the contents of file does not require its full reproduction. The use of public information for journalism is (usually) acceptable under Crown Copyright. Other users of such data, however, might require prohibitive licensing fees to reuse data produced at public expense. The question remains whether mashup sites will come to be recognised as a new form of journalism regardless of who produces them.
Again OnOneMap provides an example. Sheldrake may have to fight for the right to produce the next section of his mashup: the Environment Agency, he says, has already warned him that the flooding data is hoping to obtain from them under FOIA cannot be reused on his site without a license.
Some might argue that OnOneMap isn’t really journalism but just a business looking to use public information for commercial gain. But that would be nonsense that wrongly defines journalism with reference to the organisation that undertakes it. If Guardian Unlimited or Telegraph.co.uk produced something like this within their property market sections — or if their print editions ran the entire table in tiny print over acres of newsprint — this would be recognised instantly as the added-value journalism that it is.
- There’s still time to support Press Gazette’s campaign against the FOIA fees proposals by signing the petition that will be handed over to the Government next week.