Here’s the slide I keep coming back to and have done for months.
W. Edwards Deming was an American engineer, statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant. His work has been acclaimed as being one of the key factors that led to the Japanese industrial boom from 1950 to 1960.
He is absolutely right. Without data you are just another person with an opinion.
During my career I’ve not always appreciated this. My career has been a struggle between thought and action. As a journalist, I was measured by action. Write the story, get the scoop. Long term planning was literally tomorrow.
But as I’m often now taking the bigger picture I see the value of data to help you calmly make decisions.
The problem with data is that it doesn’t kick the door down and demand you send out a press release. It’s dull. It’s a pile of numbers. Yet, what stories it can tell you if you spend long enough panning for it like a Klondike fontiersperson hunched over a pan rext to a running stream.
Good data can save a life.
It can tell you, as I heard today at the Association of Police Communicators conference, that abusive behaviour starts in the teenage years. So, comms has been targeted at teenagers that abusive relationships are not acceptable because the data said that’s when offenders start.
So shouldn’t you spend more time panning for data?
Open data cutting edge? Like top hats, Christmas trees and giant factories the Victorians got there first.
They may not have built a chimney sweep Google death map. But their approach was similar. Collect the data. Publish it. Draw conclusions. Argue for change.
Don’t believe me?
Look at Florence Nightingale in her funny lace bonnet. Historian Dr Stephen Holliday in BBC History Magazine August 2010 writes about how she used statistics to
revolutionise the care of soldiers in the Crimean War.
By using statistics – data – she painted a picture to show a revolution in care was needed.
“When she reached Scutari the base for casualties from the Crimea,” Halliday writes, “Florence calculated that deaths from disease were seven times those arising in battle and used the campaign to campaign for better food, hygeine and clothing for the troops.”
Battered by the force of Florence’s figures and cutting edge reporting that forged the reputation of The Times the British government was forced into changes.
After the war Nightingale used her Royal connections coupled with arguments based on charts and tables to press for better standards for soldiers who even in peacetime had death rates double that of civilians.
The result? Death rates fell by 75 per cent.
Florence herself said that statistics were “the cipher by way we may read the hand of God.”
We may have lost that religious zeal but it’s an argument Tim Berners-Lee would recognise as a modern-day Florence Nightingale with a passion for data.
Did she get it right all the time?
No. Here’s the warning from history.
By misreading available data Florence Nightingale later helped kill thousands of people.
She used statistics to wrongly argue cholera was an airborne disease. It wasn’t.
It took London GP Dr John Snow to collect his own data on death rates in his patch to argue they were caused by a contaminated water supplies.
So what’s the message to today’s open data pioneers?
That first data visualisation you have in front of you may not be the whole picture.
There may be more to it.
Remember the phrase ‘lies, damn lies and official statistics?’
Statistics were once hailed as the magic cure-all that revealed a hidden truth.
It’s been said that all data in some form or other is political. Let’s not see open data similarly tainted.
Florence Nightingale –http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/cms/
BBC History Magazine August2010 http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/issue/august-2010
Crimean War data visualisation: Wikipedia.
Cholera map: Wikipedia
Tim Berners-Lee: Paul Clarke via Wikipedia
Confucius said that. Only, thing was he never worked in local government.
Speed of change in open data is blisteringly fast and getting faster.
In the Spring I thought all this would be important in 12 months time. Wrong. It was important TWO months later.
Local government in the UK has been asked to publish spending over £500 line by line.
A few months back Maidenhead and Windsor Council were hailed as a shining example of how to do this.
A few months on and the shine is wearing. Yes, they deserve praise for innovation but bright people have pointed out that you can do so much more if you publish a little bit more than a handful of categories.
Change was one of the themes of a session in Birmingham by Vicky Sergeant of SOCITM and hosted by Birmingham Council on the subject of publishing spending transparency open data.
It was a chance for people to bounce ideas and was an alphabetti spaghetti of a gathering with SOCITM, LGA and LeGSB.
Will Perrin from the Local Data Panel that helps shape data.gov.uk policy delivered a clear message:
There will be no spoon feeding from on high.
Eighty per cent of problems have been solved with blog posts such as this, he says.
It’s now down to councils to be brave and stand on their own two feet.
The combined efforts of the groups at the meeting are likely to publish at some stage some valuable advice on how best publishing spend can be put on line. These are things that struck me in the meantime.
Here are 12 key pieces of advice I took from the day
1) Publish open data-related FOI requests. Great idea. Further research shows you’ll have to be careful about publishing personal data not just in the name and address field but also in the text of the response.
2) The size of the dataset would double if it included ALL spend.
3) You can run a programme if you are clever to remove – or redact – at source personal data from social care and children’s services data.
4) You may need to make it clear to suppliers that this change is taking place. Not all are following this whole debate. In fact, I’d be amazed if any of them are.
5) Commercial confidentiality is a grey area. As Will said, the Information Commissioner’s presumption is to publish in the public interest but there is worryingly no case law to show where this has been tested.
6) Publish a unique identifier for your authority when you are publishing open data. Finance people will know what this is. It identoifies the line of data as being from a specific council.
7) Put an email address as a first point of contact for residents queries. Maybe people don’t have to go down a 20-day Freedom of Information response route first to get an answer.
9) Use the licence that can be found at data.gov.uk. It’s been looked at by government lawyers. Creative Commons while great hasn’t really been tested in law in the UK.
10) There are a lot of codes in local government finance. If you don’t know what a CIPFA BVACOP code is make friends with someone who does.
11) Don’t plough a lone furrow. As a council or an officer don’t be alone. The Communities of Practice website is an excellent place to learn and discuss.
12) Guidance maybe getting drawn-up but don’t let this stop you. The LGA, SOCITM and others are looking what would work best. Don’t wait for them, however.
13) Communications is important. You need to explain it internally as well as to elected members, residents and suppliers.
15) Publish monthly. Some in the web community are baffled as to why publication can’t be done at the end of every working day. As a compromise the Local Data Panel are saying publish monthly but within a month of month end.
Ian Carbutt from the LGA made some excellent points at the meeting. He points out there are three main areas that have several sections to them.
- What and who its for: Local authority ID code, directorate, goods and services, service department.
- Payment details: invoices, invoice number, net amount, VAT, gross amount, date of payment.
- Supplier: name, contract title, supplier company number or VAT reference.
Pick from those three paints a better, more complete picture and may lead to fewer FOI requests.
Pezholio blog on the SOCITM Birmingham local data event. A useful summary and some very useful comments.
Robert Peston famously spelt out the future of journalism – and PR – in a landmark Richard Todd lecture.
Just 12 months on and he’s out of date. Or rather, he needs rebooting slightly.
If web 1.0 was the equivalent of pinning up a digital public notice with web 2.0 we started to learn how to listen.
With web 3.0 we’ll be learning a whole new set of skills. The role of open data will be central to journalism and hand in hand as a consequence with PR. I wrote an idiots guide to it here a few months back and boy, I’m still learning.
With the open data revolution gathering pace reporters must now also be at home navigating a data store as they are on the Town Hall press benches. Press officers must do likewise.
Why? Because the avalanche of public information that will be released has the potential to sweep all before it and drown the unprepared.
Mathew Ingram, the communities editor of The Globe and Mail in Toronto, famously has said “the golden age of computer assisted reporting is at hand.”
Data journalism is a phrase that will become as familiar in journalism colleges as Teeline shorthand and exam favourite The Oxdown Gazette. What is data journalism? It’s the use of apps and mash-ups to mine for news amongst released data. Isn’t that for geeks? No. Where once a council committee report would bear fruit the data set is the new news source.
Open data brings transparency and openness.
Think of it as FOI turbo charged and you’re not even close.
Hyperlocal bloggers who are at home on the web are light years ahead in the interpretation of open data compared to print journalists.
Some journalism courses understand this. The excellent Birmingham City University gets it in spades.
So where does this leave the press officer?
The fashionable thing to say is the press officer as gatekeeper will be redundant by web 2.0 and buried by web 3.0. For me, that’s hooey.
But the old-style press officer who has served time as a hack and can only write a press release is a dead man walking.
What is needed to keep pace with the information arms race are new skills.
The ability to work with or create a mash-up will become as important as having a notebook or a sharp pencil.
Will the press officer for web 3.0 be an allrounder? Definitely. Will they have to have the command of every skill? No. But the team he belongs to sure as hell collectively will have.
At the risk of sounding in years to come as a BBC Tomorows’ World clip, here is how the web 3.0 communications team needs to look:
- Have basic journalism skills.
- Know how the machinery of local government works.
- Write a press release.
- Work under speed to deadline.
- Understand basic photography.
- Understand sub-editing and page layouts.
For web 1.0 the press office also needed to:
- Add and edit web content
For web 2.0 the press office also needs to:
- Create podcasts
- Create and add content to a Facebook page.
- Create and add content to a Twitter stream.
- Create and add content to Flickr.
- Create and add content to a blog.
- Monitor and keep abreast of news in all the form it takes from print to TV, radio and the blogosphere.
- Develop relationships with bloggers.
- Go where the conversation is whether that be online or in print.
- Be ready to respond out-of-hours because the internet does not recognise a print deadline.
For web 3.0 the press office will also need to:
- Create and edit geotagged data such as a Google map.
- Create a data set.
- Use an app and a mash-up.
- Use basic html.
- Blog to challenge the mis-interpretation of data.
But with web 3.0 upon us and the pace of change growing faster to stay relevant the comms team has to change.
Data journalism links
What is data journalism? A good introductory piece from The Guardian..
Mapped: the UK’s road cycling hotspot A mash-up of accident data by The Times.
Oil and Gas Chief Execs Are They Worth It? Lovely Financial Times data visualisation – needs a sign-up.
Is It Better To Rent Or Buy? New York Times data visualisation.
What is a mash-up? Great advice from the BCU journalism lecturer Paul Bradshaw.
Creative Commons credits: