Project description

This year I have continued to use my analytical and investigative skills to illuminate vital issues that affect readers, turn vast datasets into content that brings context and insight to issues hitting the headlines, as well as quickly analysing datasets to ensure newsrooms across the UK have up to the minute news

– Children spending months living in bed and breakfast hotels and hostels – the housing crisis has been a major issue this year, with increasing numbers of people becoming homeless. This story highlights the impact of that growing pressure meeting limited resources by using Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to look at the number families, including children, spending months in unsuitable accommodation – the rules state children should spend no more than six weeks in such places.

– Ambulances facing long waits to handover patients at A&E – A&Es and ambulance services have seen intense demand in recent years, and statistics play a vital role in monitoring how performance has deteriorated. Using FOI requests, I was able to build a database of ambulance handovers over five years to analyse how local hospitals were faring and revealing the shocking and distressing long waits being faced by some patients.

– Violent crime soars as police officer number fall – reacting to breaking news that Home Office documents had suggested a potential link between the two by using data to give a local picture of what that link may look like in reality.

– Number of children unvaccinated against measles – measles outbreaks in the UK, and across the world, is leading to rising concern about the impact of anti-vaccination rhetoric on vaccination rates. This story analysed years of vaccination statistics to try to quantify the potential scale of missed MMR jabs, showing both the impact of earlier unfounded fears, and the potential thousands of children at risk if outbreaks continue.

– Where is recycling being sent – as China banned imports of plastic waste for recycling, I analysed a vast public database showing final destinations of waste collected by councils to find out how much and what types of waste were being sent abroad.

– Thousands of operations cancelled due to lack of beds, staff and equipment – using FOI requests to gather more detail on what led hospitals to cancel operations, this hard-hitting story shows the impact of austerity on the NHS, with patients increasingly facing cancelled operations due to a lack of resources.

– What land does the Queen own – a deep-dive into the Land Registry\’s data on corporate ownership of property, coupled with detailed research to bring individual records to life led to a series of fascinating stories about the property owned by the Crown Estate, including many local landmarks that readers may never have imagined were owned by the monarch.

What makes this project innovative?

My work as a data journalist is innovative in the way in which I gather, analyse and use data. I make exceptional use of FOI - making requests systematically, across hundreds of public bodies and over a number of years, to build datasets that only exist because of the way in which I use the powers available. Painstaking use of FOI for some of the stories in this portfolio - which involved sending hundreds of requests, fighting refusals, and collating responses - allowed me to gather shocking national figures that highlight the issue as a whole, as well as providing background to dozens of equally important local stories for Reach’s network of news sites and papers. For the story looking at ambulance handovers, I made dozens of requests over several years to build a comprehensive database of nearly 30 million patient handovers by ambulances at Britain’s A&Es, covering the past five years. As well as using FOI, I am an expert at mining large and complex open datasets in innovative ways to find new ways of approaching stories that are in the headlines. My story on where councils were sending their waste for recycling involved taking a government database that wasn't designed for the type of analysis I needed to do to get the story, so it took hours of cleaning with inventive use of spreadsheet formulas and tools to categorise the individual lines of data by where the waste was sent. One of my skills as a data journalist is finding original ways of answering the questions that matter to readers. Identifying property owned by the Queen also involved making use of a dataset, on commercial property ownership, that had not been used in this way in the past, and combining that data with careful research to put together the story. Similarly, while vaccination rate statistics have been previously reported, using the data to calculate how many children had potentially missed out of the years, was an inventive way to combine the data to shed new light on a serious health crisis.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

The work here is some of the best work I have produced this year, but it is only a small portion of everything I do. As a data journalist, I make excellent use of the wealth of data and information that is available to newsrooms, producing thousands of stories from digging out strong local and national angles from data. Stories that are often at the top of Reach’s site most read lists, and which have collectively been read millions of times. For example, stories looking at the Queen's property portfolio were shared more than 5,000 times on Facebook, putting them among stories that had high numbers of views and engagement times of over a minute. As well as using data to find great stories that engage readers, I feel my work as a data journalist has had a wider impact in terms of the development of data journalism as a field, whether through sharing skills or fighting the battles needed to make accessing data easier for everyone. My commitment to make the best possible use of FOI to gather data has brought me into conflict with public bodies who are less keen on their data being public, meaning I've often had to fight, successfully in many cases, to overturn refusals. In May 2018, I argued in front of a judge at the Upper Tier Tribunal to win a victory in a three-year FOI battle against the Information Commissioner's Office, to secure the release of detailed local authority-level data on homelessness. The precedent-setting win makes it easier for regional journalists to use FOI to access detailed information about their areas by setting out clear guidelines on when suppressing small numbers is appropriate or not. It's impact is already been seen in decisions by the ICO that cite it as a reason for ordering the release of data. I also continue to support the development of data journalism, spending time training journalism students in the UK, as well as regional journalists across the world, in how to use data journalism skills to hold public bodies to account.

Source and methodology

Freedom of Information requests to public bodies across Britain, collated in spreadsheets. I kept careful records to keep track of the responses received, and ensure bodies that had yet to reply could be chased, as well as refusals that needed to be challenged. Once received, information was then entered into a spreadsheet so it could be checked, with particular information that looked like outliers or that was reported in unusual formats queried with the public body. The information was then analysed in order to draw out national and local stories. Otherwise, the data is part of government statistical releases by departments, the NHS or the Office for National Statistics, and either analysed by itself or brought together with other publicly available spreadsheets, or monthly and quarterly updates. When working with data I take care in cleaning to ensure that the data is as accurate as possible, and will check data against other available sources, such as comparing the Land Registry data on the Crown Estate to what is published by that organisation, or double checking FOI responses that don't add up. For example, building the database of ambulance handovers meant sense-checking the raw data provided to exclude data where some or all of the information had not been entered by crews or where the data strongly appeared to have been wrongly entered (where dates had been entered wrong meaning waits of several days, or where the patient was handed over before the ambulance arrived at the A&E). Comparing the proportions of over 30 minute and over 1 hour waits to the limited data published by NHS England on winter ambulance handovers also helped as an accuracy check. This was to ensure that the statistics better reflected actual waits experienced by patients, rather than poorly recorded data.

Technologies Used

The data is analysed in spreadsheets (either OpenOffice Calc or Excel). Stories were then sent out using the Data Unit's bulletin system. The bulletin system is based on stories written in Google Docs, which are then sent out via Gmail using a script that collects the data from the Google Doc and creates emails that are sent out based on a spreadsheet of contact details.

Project members

James Rodger, Louie Smith, Steve Robson, Martin Bagot, Amy Orton

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