Monthly Archives: January 2011

FAQs about the background to Help Me Investigate

Every so often I get asked to answer questions about Help Me Investigate for someone's research project or article. I try to answer these in public so that others can also find the answers if they need to.

If you are doing an article or research into crowdsourcing, you'll find answers to basic questions about the site in these audioboos:?

There are videos of presentations I've made about the site here:?

And here:?

And you can find interviews with me about Help Me Investigate on the Columbia Journalism Review:?

And, going back a while, at MediaShift (just before the site was due to launch):?

How you should use the Freedom of Information Act…

The Freedom of Information act, despite becoming common practice amongst the new wave of journalism, is still a very new concept to a great deal of the public, and finding the best way to present data that is acquired through this act can be a difficult task.

AcademicFOI are the perfect example of an organisation who are doing great things with useful data.

First of all, they ask questions and make sure everyone knows what questions they asked; the whole process not just public but easy to understand.

Take, for example, the most recent investigation into workplace bullying at UK universities.

The Freedom of Information request covered fourteen questions, covering all the universities.

This data is daunting, even to the most experienced, so for the public to even attempt to consume this raw data there must be a lot of work done.

They immediately outline the key findings, the mission groups and the extremes; the ‘newsworthy’ data that provides the key news angles and gives the most interesting answers. Further interesting findings are then outlined and explained, clearly.

The next section is where they really come into their own; they unveil every question asked, explain what they should have asked with hindsight, and where they could or have encountered problems.

This is not your standard public process as they make public every aspect of the investigation. The basic excel data is available for download and their findings are presented in tables categorised by the question they apply to, so nothing is hidden, their news values are openly identified and the data is there for you to find answers to any questions you may have.

Although, it would be useful if then information were available in Google Docs formats as well, to help move along the adaption of data for other journalists.

All in all, if there was a way to deal with data that best represented what the Freedom of Information Act is all about, it is this way. Making everything public is what the act was created for, and allowing your audience to interpret the data rather than consume it is something that more organisations need to become open to.

The Climate Camp story continues…

On 23rd August last year, it was widely reported that “a substance similar to diesel or vegetable oil was poured onto the carriageways” that made up the A720 and A8 roads of Edinburgh.

As a result, protests took place where “hundreds of campaigners spent a week occupying the Gogarburn grounds of RBS’ headquarters protesting against what they believed were environmentally damaging investments”.

The Help Me Investigate investigation began with the legitimacy of the ‘oil slick’ claims, but eventually evolved, alongside The Guardian’s investigations, into the protests themselves.

Yet still, over four months later, Lothian & Borders Police have not released information relating to the costs of the protests, claiming Section 17 (information not found).

The first and second Freedom Of Information Requests were stalled, with Lothian & Borders Police originally claiming that “it will take some time before all costs (expenses etc) have been accounted for and I would therefore suggest that you re-apply for this information in about two month’s time”, and then, come October, announcing that “it is unlikely that this information will be fully collated until the end of October (at the very earliest) and I would therefore suggest that you re-apply after that time”.

The Guardian found similar roadblocks, and with this update last week, it seems that they are still no closer to finding any answers.

The Guardian tells us that “on three occasions since August we have used the Freedom of Information Act to ask the local police force to tell us the cost of policing the protests” but all have been refused.

The report also references the Help Me Investigate findings relating to traffic logs on the day of the alleged oil-spill.

The best quote to leave the story so far on is this:

“The Force Information Unit recommend you resubmit your FOI early in the New Year, as they hope to have a figure available in January.”

We’ll see.