Monthly Archives: October 2010

Latest: Was there an oil slick at Climate Camp in Edinburgh and if so who was responsible for it?

The Guardian's Edinburgh site reports on the latest developments?in the investigation into the truth behind police reports of an oil slick blamed on Climate Camp campaigners:

In August?we asked?Lothian and Borders Police (LBP) how much money it cost them to police the protest. The force?rejected?the first request, saying Operation Octave was still ongoing on 25 August.

We then submitted a?date-specific request?for the information, to try to ring-fence costs relating specifically to the Gogarburn demonstration, rather than any ongoing investigations or criminal cases.

However, this second attempt?has also been delayed, with the police force saying it is unlikely to be collated within the statutory 20 working days.

How will the Spending Review affect people in Birmingham?

I’ve just spent a couple of hours gathering demographic data about Birmingham to get an idea of how different parts of the city will be affected by today’s Spending Review.

The first thing I’ve visualised is what sectors are people working in in the city’s 8 constituencies. From this you can, for example, see that a large proportion of people in Hodge Hill work in public administration, education or health – likely to be particularly badly hit – while Yardley has the smallest proportion of workers in the public sector, and so is likely to escape job cuts. 

public sector employment in Birmingham

You can see the map visualisation in action here. Because of the scale of the colouring, differences in some job sectors are harder to see clearly (where the differences are smaller).

The next step is to go through the spending review to see what industries might be affected and how that maps out in the region.

It will also be worth trying to find other data, such as numbers claiming welfare. 

And also worth exploring is whether the hardest-hit areas are likely to have any influence politically. If they change their vote in the next election, will it actually matter? The Voter Power Index could come in useful here.

Data sources: Data is from 2007 and is taken from BirminghamEconomy. I had to copy them from individual PDFs, sadly, and collate them in a series of spreadsheets, which are published here.

CIJ Summer School: Web Detective Tools & Techniques

By Chie Elliott

One of the sessions I most enjoyed at the CIJ Summer School in July 2010 for its sheer “geekiness” was Paul Myers’ Web Detective. As my attendance was kindly sponsored by Help Me Investigate, I will be sharing my notes from the course on this blog, so that other HMI investigators can also benefit from the knowledge.

Paul Myers works as a researcher, investigator and trainer at the BBC, specialising in finding information on the Internet. This may sound obvious in an age when even a four-year-old seems to know how to buy a car on EBay using his parents’ credit card, but Myers goes well beyond your average advance googling and setting up RSS feeds into what to me sounds like James Bond territory.

Starting with basics
  • Web investigations can be started with basic use of search engines. A search on Bing may give you different results from one on Google; it is worth using both to compare. Filter your search as much as possible by entering as many relevant key words or criteria as possible in your search. Personally I find this “Google search cheat sheet” quite useful, but I also came across this BBC Training page, by Myers, which explains why some words serve as ‘anchors’, others as ‘rudders’ when organising your search.
  • Do not estimate social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, as sources of information. They can give you an insight not only on the person’s online (and offline) social activities, but what messages they are leaving on other people’s “walls”. If you find out a person’s online ID/username on one site, this is likely to help you track them on multiple sites.

General search tips
  • Knowing the email address of the person you are investigating about can be a most helpful piece of information, as it allows you to narrow down the search, as opposed to searching by name. Even if you do not know their email, remember that people often have web-based email accounts such as Hotmail or Gmail, so try a combination of name or online ID + hotmailATcom or gmailATcom, etc.
  • Don’t forget that sometimes people use different spelling for their names. Try variations. 
  • Resist entering names in quotes for added search flexibility. Instead of “John Smith” try using John*Smith. The * (asterisk) in between ensures proximity between the two names in the results. For instance, if you wanted to find out any information about Obama in relation to the World Cup, enter: Obama*”world cup”.
  • You can search within specific sites. With Google Custom Search, you can custom build your search to specific websites or webpages.

People Finders
  • – a “deep web search” using name, email address or username. For Americans, the site also offers the option of searching by telephone number. Enter any name or email address and test the search. You will be aghast at how comprehensive the gathered information is.
  • A similar search tool is 123People, which will basically give you an online profile for that person’s name, including all social networking accounts, even Amazon Wish Lists.
  • allows you to search phone books, electoral rolls, business information, company credit reports, birth, marriage and death certificates.

Website info finder
  • WHOIS queries remote WHOIS databases for domain registration information. You can find out when and by whom a domain was registered and their contact information. Each number on an IP address is linked to either a user or a web server. This service is free of charge, but did not fall under Myer’s list of most recommended.
  • With DomainTools, you can even check previous registrations of domain names. By clicking on its Reverse IP service, you can look on the server to see what other other addresses/domains are hosted on the same IP address. For investigative journalists, who do not want to be searched in this way, it is therefore good to be aware that by using Domains by Proxy, you can hide your IP address. 

“Cyber condoms”
  • The expression above belongs to Paul Myers. With so many advance search tools available on the web, investigators also need to protect themselves against their own weapons. If you do not want your searches to be tracked down, apart from deleting your Web History, you can search anonymously using the free service of It is the wise spy entering the house with gloves on so that no fingerprints are left behind.
  • An alternative is to download the open source software Tor, which will anonymise your connections to the Internet and prevent people from discovering which sites you visit as well as blocking the sites you visit from learning your location. 

For more tools recommended by Myers and useful links to help you understand every aspect of searching and being searched online, visit Paul Myers’ Research Clinic website. 

Why is the Electoral Commission trying to make life difficult for journalists?

That’s the question that David Higgerson is asking after casting his eye over the results of various investigations into electoral expenses, and a Freedom of Information response from the Electoral Commission revealing “that it told councils there was ‘no provision in law’ for people to take notes from the expenses

“Several authorities had sought information on what to do if reporters asked to look at the documents, and the response from the Commission’s North West team was:

In the absence of any definitive legislation on this point, the prudent option is to inform the paper that ‘inspect’ does not extend to the taking of notes. To that end, if the paper wishes to look at the returns in more detail at a later date, (for what ever purpose) they should purchase a copies.

Higgerson points out that “while there is nothing in law which says people can take notes, there’s nothing in the law which says people can’t – so why make the distinction?”

More on David Higgerson’s blog here.

You can join one of the various investigations into election expenses here. If you want to start your own there’s plenty of advice on this blog – post a comment if you want help.

Tories’ child benefit plans – giving to the mothers, taking from the fathers?

The government announced this week that they plan to withdraw child benefit for couples where either parent earns above £44,000. Some have seen this as an attack on women, as child benefit is one of the few benefits to be paid to the mother. But the devil in the detail may reveal just the opposite.

Why? Because the benefit will not actually be withdrawn, but clawed back through the tax system. And as there is a gender gap between male and female earnings, and women are more likely to work part time, the money will most likely be paid by fathers.

To illustrate how this might pan out, I’ve quickly visualised some pay statistics from 2008 which show how annual earnings are distributed between men and women (screengrab below). Men hit the £44,000 point around the 85th percentile – but women don’t hit it until after the 90th. In fact, even when you look at women working full time only, earnings at the 90th percentile are around £40,000, and there is no data on what percentage of women are earning over £44,000 (although I’m going to keep looking for this).

What does this mean? Well, some family discord at least, given that money is one of the subjects couples most argue about (statistical support needed!). You might also argue that it is – if ever so slightly – addressing the gender gap in pay, if clumsily to say the least.

How I got here: The data is available in full at this spreadsheet, which was obtained through this PDF on the national statistics website, which I found in turn from in the references on this study into gender equality, that I found from this search. The whole thing took less than 20 minutes.

gender gap in pay, 2008