National Asset Bubbles – All in a day’s data

Posted: March 9, 2011 in Data Journalism, My Data Journey, News Story
Tags: , , , , , , ,

So far I’ve called myself a data journalist. But then again Paris Hilton calls herself a business woman. From my previous post, you can see my interest growing. But I haven’t really done anything. I am trying to learn the skills. These skills aren’t actually known and neither is the job description. But the best way to learn is to do. So here’s something I actually worked on.

This is a visual made from the most inaccessible (both data and journalistically) PDFs of the National Asset Register. the information it contained was used for a Dispatches live debate and this repurposing was put into an article on the Channel 4 News website. I was fortunate enough to be part of the ScraperWiki team that took on the project and produced it in a matter of days. I have written a blog post on ScraperWiki here.

We also made a map of county council brownfield sites available for redevelopment which featured on Channel 4. I actually made the scraper for this data set as it was contained on Excel sheets by region on the Homes and Communities Agency website.  The links to all the scrapers and code can be found on the ScraperWiki blogpost.

These show something of what ScraperWiki can do. I particularly like the fact that the bubbles link back to the data in the PDF. I think if you engage people in a data driven story with simple and effective visuals then they can consume the raw data, and possibly provide better insights.

The map is good in that it allows users to get to their local data, where it matters to them. Local information from a global story. Yet what tickled my journalistic senses is the use of feedback. I suggested to the ScraperWiki team that we always have a feedback from what we do. We got responses on the story. Not great ones. One rather bluntly told us that a school was already being built on the land. The latest data available is only as recent as 2008.

But I engaged this user and found that the bluntness of the response was owing to the fact that the land was ‘once a well loved open space’. If he/she felt so strongly about this change of use I suggested requesting the consultation documents from the council under the Freedom of Information Act and pointed in the direction of WhatDoTheyKnow. Part of ScraperWiki’s remit is building a data democracy and data driven journalism should go some way to promoting an information democracy. I think news organizations fear this as their revenue is linked to their role as information gatekeepers. But social media and the web is breaking down this ideology.

Power comes in breaking down information structures. I wanted to do more with the asset bubbles. Looking back, the orbits are connected to the bureaucratic structure of the data. Given enough time, I would have liked the visual to build an asset pyramid. Where larger bubbles (those with assets of the highest value) would float to the top and lots of little bubbles would form the base of the pyramid. So by looking down you see the more asset intense areas of government which the country has invested in. But when you smash the bubble the components would then fall to their various levels. So by looking into the levels you see all the little areas, museums, barracks, hospital, etc, that equate to similar fixed asset investments. This would break through the departmental structure that was built in the chapters of PDFs.

For that, I need to learn to code. So I’d better get back. Again, if I’m able to do anything of interest you’ll hear about it!

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