The Bureau Local – a collaborative investigation network for local data-driven, public-interest journalism – is one of the most innovative initiatives in UK media.At a time when investment in local journalism is falling, the unit was conceived to provide data resource and expert support for professionals working to hold power to account. It’s a Panama Papers-style team, but instead of an international consortium, we’re breaking local stories with our UK network. The project was launched by the non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism in March 2017 and quickly found its stride. In just a year, the network has published over 160 exclusive local stories across 10 investigations. A small team of five now facilitates a network of 650 members collaborating in person and online – which we are particularly proud of because our industry is not naturally disposed to collaboration.We have almost 100 local journalist members, covering hyperlocals, counties and regionals, print, online and broadcast. The rest span national journalists, technical and data specialists, local government, NGOs and ordinary citizens, each bringing different skills and expertise. For our first investigation, 65 strangers across the UK – including statisticians and programmers – collaborated around a new model for identifying groups of powerful voters. This ‘voter power’ project set the bar for how we have built our collaborative, investigative newsroom.More recently, 20 members came together to report on domestic violence, an investigation that’s so far resulted in 66 pieces. The team probed council funding, interviewed dozens of refuge managers and survivors, and there’s now a ‘live journalism’ No Refuge Tour in development with one of our sources.Our latest investigation into council spending in England is our largest data project yet. To gather people around the data, we organised a collaborative reporting event, the Big Council Budget Hack, across Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Coventry and London. In all, 160 people came on a rainy Saturday to scrutinise council budgets. So far more than 20 stories have appeared in local media, including a front page in Lancashire.The Bureau Local also sources stories that we can scale up directly from our network. One member obtained Home Office data last year and shared it with the network in order to reveal, alongside nine partner publications, that thousands of UK citizens were being swept up in immigration spot-checks.We’ve secured more than 40 media collaborations – with local titles like the Yorkshire Post, Lancashire Post and Bristol Cable; national and international titles like The Times, Guardian, BBC and The New York Times; television programmes including Channel 4 News and BBC North West Tonight; and radio and podcasts such as BOB FM and The Tip Off podcast.Our work has prompted MPs to speak out, informed a Private Members Bill in the UK parliament and we recently secured funding for a round of investment in local data-driven storytelling.
What makes this project innovative?
The Bureau Local is not only bringing statistical advancements to journalism, but is at the forefront of innovation in collaboration, particularly in local news. Since launching last year, through data and collaboration, the Bureau Local has tackled important and underreported issues in the UK.Notably for our first investigation, two days before the general election we revealed that new voters had the power to swing 71 seats. Despite the belief that Theresa May would increase her majority, on June 9 nearly half the seats we identified had changed hands.The Bureau Local achieved this by building a vast database of voter demographics with a pair of statisticians and then pulling in 65 collaborators in five cities to dig into the database.We not only build robust public interest databases but also make them accessible for journalists and the public through our step-by-step ‘reporting recipes’. One journalist speaking at a Bureau Local event in March said these guides helped her quickly pick up a specialist topic, domestic violence, which “would have taken her weeks”.The Bureau Local’s ongoing investigation into local authority spending in England is our largest data project yet and it has opened up two important sources of information. Firstly it brought together hundreds of budget reports to create a clear picture of how councils plan to spend their money in 2018/19. Secondly it amalgamated 10 years of historical spending to allow people to compare how spending has changed over time. The project has made this disparate and complex data accessible for the first time, but through our reporting recipes - which clearly explain our methodology - offers a framework by which people can monitor the decisions taken by local authorities for years to come. This work in particular will help us push for push for an increase in the amount of accessible, not simply available, data that is released by government.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
Since launching a year ago, the Bureau Local has helped local reporters produce almost 160 data-driven stories. Beyond the headlines, we have hosted 23 events with more than 350 people, from hacks to discussions, from Bournemouth to Glasgow, and spoken on more than 45 platforms.Voter powerOur first investigation, with the help of two statisticians and two local journalists, created a robust new model for understanding voter power. This featured in The Times and in 18 local papers - helping us attract our first members.We also partnered with WhoTargetsMe to pull in thousands of election Facebook ads - the largest dataset of its kind - with the help of more than 10,000 UK volunteers. Our analysis found ads tailored to location, gender and views on Brexit in key marginal seats. Stories ran in the Guardian, the New York Times and 35 locals.No Refuge Our domestic violence investigation has evolved to cover three complex areas of policy and involved 20 members working remotely over six months. The project resulted in 17 national stories, including with Channel 4, Elle and the New Statesman, and more than 50 hard-hitting local stories. Twelve MPs have already spoken out about the work. Soon, the No Refuge Tour will take a comedy show developed with one of our sources to the places where local reporting happened, aiming to reach at least 500 people.Council budgetsOur use of data to identify councils in distress prompted national debate and Sheffield MP Gill Furniss questioned the prime minister directly on what she planned to do about her city’s children’s services. This problem was reported using Bureau Local data in her local paper The Yorkshire Post.Beyond high-level discussion, our hacks and reporting recipes enabled hundreds to explore this complex data. We were particularly interested to see software developer Diane Reddel look at the poor accessibility of council budgets. Several international students also made a film about why they care about cuts.
Source and methodology
We approach every investigation in a collaborative way. When we take on an investigation, we put a call out to our 650-strong network, but also reach out to topic experts, tech companies, and possible academic and organisational partners.We get everyone to agree to conditions of collaboration and trust, then share data, story leads, quotes from sources, information and tips. We open up our data, methodologies, code and our ‘reporting recipes’ and begin discussions with our collaborators. Sometimes we hold roundtables with experts to dig into an issue, other times we hold hackdays to bring people together when there is a vast amount of data or a short deadline to work to. In some cases we crowdsource data by creating our own surveys while in others we put a call out for help - that may be to commission an illustrator or get help with wrangling a dataset. We always make everything available online, through open Google Docs and Sheets, and our Slack channels. We agree on an embargo date and encourage collaborators to publish together. Along the way we work together to get the best story locally and nationally. We also run events, community meetups and ‘behind the story’ sessions around the country. We have raised funds to support local reporting through our Local Story Fund so we can commission local reporters who need the extra support to dig into an issue.
Maeve McClenaghan, Kirsty Styles, Gareth Davies, Charles Boutaud