Journalists are already working hard to get to grips with the stream of data now becoming freely available. Among it, information which can be expected to produce some startling headlines! The latest advice to them comes from David Higgerson who went into print on local government data deadline day.
Higgerson rightly points out that finding the data in the first place can be a bit of a pain but there is at least one good starting point, The Guardian’s Data Blog has a list of councils which have published and in what format here, plus a list on the DCLG website.
As Higgerson states, many journalists will head first for details of which companies which get the most money from a council, or which department spends the most. He recommends the Openly Local website.
So to the nitty gritty. He guides journalists to the wonders of speadsheet technique, and in particular, to using filters, in every column. This Higgerson says enables them to quickly slice and dice data – bringing up the top 10 payments, for example- and he offers this: A guide on using Autofilters can be found here.
Now such technical niceties may be anathema to traditional journalists, but times and technology are changing rapidly, and Higgerson highlights the potential of Google Fusion Tables. These he says make it very easy to play around with the data which councils have to provide. A tour can found here.
Jumping to conclusions is perhaps the greatest danger for journalists exploring open data. Its meaning can be obscure or ambiguous. As Higgerson cautions, for example, Birmingham City Council’s spending data for December includes a lot of spending on taxis. But is it all for ferrying council officers around or does it also include spending by, say, social services for ‘service users’ getting to day centres, or for children travelling to schools? Journalists still need to ask the questions to discover the truth.
The devil is in the detail, and the Manchester Evening News’s coverage of spending at councils in its area is proof of that, Higgerson says. Many of the items of spending it references include a more detailed description of the spending than appears on the spreadsheet – for example the reason the council spent £20k with Manchester City or the £750 spent on a ‘huge chicken hotpot.’ If you search the MCC data for spending of £750, no firm which only does ‘huge chicken hotpot’ comes up but catering firms do. Asking the council further questions about spending is crucial.
Finally, Higgerson points out that Birmingham City Council says on its website that people wanting more information can do so under the Freedom of Information Act. There’s nothing to suggest this would apply to journalists, who have access to the council’s press office, but if councils start to complain about the work caused by open data requests, perhaps they should also look at whether they could be releasing more detail in the first place.
These are early days in the data revolution, but council officers can expect an increase in their workload, and members can expect a voters’ backlash when journalists highlight, with renewed vigour, questionable spending, particularly in the traditional areas of perceived junketing, banquests and mammoth taxi bills.
All the more reason for councils to think hard about what they spend and the implications of what they publish, and draw up their strategy to deal with it, before it all becomes public.