Four hundred stories for local newspapers, radio and TV: meet the BBC Shared Data Unit

Assistant Editor, Shared Data Unit

A year ago, the BBC Shared Data Unit shared its first piece of content with titles represented by local news organisations across the UK.

It was an innovative exercise in collaborative journalism, one of three key initiatives under the Local News Partnerships banner, an agreement between the BBC and the UK’s regional media sector, which also includes the Local Democracy Reporting Service and the News Hub.

The publication of that first piece of content last September marked a step into uncharted waters. How would an industry traditionally driven by competition come together under a collaborative umbrella? And would our content be used by the hundreds of local news organisations who have signed up to receive content under the scheme?

Twelve months on, and the unit’s original data journalism has been the springboard for more than 400 stories across the UK. Newspapers have turned our content into front page splashes, radio stations have used it as a focus for debate shows, and local television stations have turned it into packages.

Our investigative pieces have resonated with a wide range of outlets from the Manchester Evening News to ITV, from the Northern Echo to the Belfast Telegraph, and from the Wales Daily Post to Good Morning Ulster. We’ve also made headlines on some of the BBC’s flagship news programmes including Radio Five live, the Six O’Clock News, Jeremy Vine and Victoria Derbyshire.

But content is not all that we’re about. A key part of our remit is a commitment to train the next generation of UK local data journalists. We believe public bodies will only be held to account if journalists have the technical expertise to analyse datasets.

To date, ten reporters from the regional press have learned how to clean, analyse and visualise data during three-month secondments. The training programme also includes a two-day placement with the BBC’s Visual Journalism department at New Broadcasting House.

Journalists from local and regional media are being trained through BBC Shared Data Unit secondments

It’s been a busy year. We’ve also held two hackdays with the aim of making inaccessible data public and to cap it all off, we hosted a data journalism conference at the BBC’s Salford HQ to celebrate the rich variety of data journalism being practised across the UK.

We hosted a number of sessions on how to source data, how to use Freedom of Information laws, and how to use data journalism in regional newsrooms. During the summer, our work was recognised when we picked up a nomination for innovation at the Drum Online Media Awards.

So what have we learned along the way? Firstly, recent years have seen a seismic shift in scale when it comes to collaborative journalism. Sarah Stonebely, from the Center for Co-operative Media in the US, has said collaboration in newsrooms has now evolved “from experiment to common practice”.

When a reporter from Suddeutsche Zeitung in Germany was handed the biggest leak in history, he knew his paper was unequipped to handle the task of handling the story alone.

Instead, a team of 400 journalists from more than 100 media organisations set about the task of finding stories within the data. The Panama Papers stories eventually showed how celebrities, politicians, sportsman and the global elite secretly managed their estates offshore.

What’s clear from such collaborations is that there are some challenges faced by journalists too great to face alone.

Secondly, collaboration fulfills needs on both sides. In our case, the regional press benefits from the BBC’s training and expertise, as well as being handed long-term investigative journalism it might otherwise struggle to resource.

At the same time, the BBC benefits from tremendous extra reach for its journalism. In addition, through embracing collaboration, we can drive innovation. Our data team, for example, has been injected with new faces, journalists fresh with ideas and enthusiasm, and with excellent local contacts.

Now we focus on year two. We already have big plans. First up, we will collaborate with Open Data Manchester and Open Contracting to host another hackday - this time examining government procurement data, which often goes unscrutinised.

We have stories lined up with which we hope to make a splash, and we look forward to welcoming more journalists into the fold.

Find out more about the BBC Shared Data Unit here

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