Data journalism meets UK hyperlocal media: What’s hindering the potential?


We can trace back the first big wave of data journalism to 2010 when leading newspapers such as The Guardian, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune started using data to report on stories in a more effective and visual way.

“The UK and the US news media organizations have been at the forefront in adapting and adopting new digital technologies for journalistic processes many times before”. (OECD 2010)

Data journalism or data driven journalism has been defined simply as journalism based on large datasets. The way it operates is through gathering data and information on a local or hyperlocal level and then working with it to create a bigger picture.

When talking about the local or hyperlocal levels, Journalist Tony Rogers, author of the Guide to Journalism, refers to the “coverage of events and topics on an extremely small, local scale. An example might be a website that covers a specific neighbourhood or even a particular section or block of a neighbourhood”.

Despite the evident correlation between the two, data journalism is still a nascent concept in the UK's emerging hyperlocal media ecology.

Recent research suggests that there are about 408 active hyperlocal sites in the UK - compared to 1,045 local and regional newspapers.

This emerging media offers a valuable service to local communities, who relate more to its content. As a result, local and hyperlocal services boast high levels of interactivity with their audience.

“Local and hyperlocal websites can potentially also be good for maintaining local identity and can provide healthy scrutiny and discussion of local democracy and local issues, which is to be encouraged,” stated the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee in 2010.

Perhaps the most notable services are FixMyStreet and its US equivalent SeeClickFix. The way these websites work is by allowing citizens to report issues to local councils in a quick and efficient way.

With FixMyStreet, it’s possible to report problems to the council simply by selecting the location of the problem on a map and describing it in one sentence. The report is then automatically sent to the departments in charge to deal with it.

Another experience is that of Urbs.London. Journalist Gary Rogers and media strategist Alan Renwick are behind this site, which turns open data into news stories.


Image: Urbs.London

To gather stories, the team relies on the London Datastore, which provides access to over 600 data sets. They have already published more than 300 stories covering a wide range of topics including the housing market, job opportunities and transport in London. Urbs.London has more than 22,908 likes on Facebook. Their articles are kept under 400 words, with links to the original data.

In the US, one of the most famous cases is when the San Jose-based NeighborWebSJ used maps to cover the Streetlight Shutoff Program: “a cost-saving program aiming to permanently shut off designated streetlights”. This led the local community to protest as they feared an increase in the rates of crime.

In response to these community concerns, the website included a Google Map to indicate where lights were out across the city, as well as information on how to report issues to the authorities.


Image: A screenshot of the NeighborWebSJ Google Map

Neighbor WebSJ’s coverage of the Streetlight Shutoff Program, backed by local complaints, forced the city to reconnect 900 of the streetlights that had been previously shut off as part of the budget cuts in 2008-2009.

Another example is the Bay Citizen in California, which created an interactive Bike Accident Tracker that used data collected from 14,113 incidents reported to the police between January 2005 and December 2009. Thanks to this map, it was possible for users to identify which routes were the safest and which were best avoided, using filtering parameters such as lighting and road conditions.

Despite the vital role they play in unravelling issues that are often disregarded by mainstream media, local and hyperlocal media are faced with many challenges that hinder their expansion.

According to Rachel Oldroyd, managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative journalism, “compared to the US where data is open and published in a usable format, the use of data journalism in the UK local and hyperlocal level is still behind and that’s reflective of the lack of skills available to understand data and the lack of confidence to pull data together to create stories”.

Further, unlike other media groups, local services usually don’t have a trade body, or official representation that can help promote discussion with government officials on their status and place in the media landscape.

Many hyperlocal sites are precarious and operate on small budgets, with most revenue coming from sales of adverts to small local businesses.

Acceptance by traditional media has also been hard to obtain and faith in local and hyperlocal media’s potential seems to fade away after some time, with many parent media companies pulling the plug on their newly launched hyperlocal experiences. One example is LoudounExtra.com, started by The Washington Post in 2007 to cover Loudoun County and shut down two years later. Another striking case was when NBC News closed down EveryBlock, one of the first pioneers of data driven hyperlocal news sites, citing an inability to make returns on their investment.

To counter these obstacles, Damien Radcliffe (2012) identifies 4 steps to bring hyperlocal media back on the radar, particularly in the UK:

  1. Funding: He recalls Nesta’s Destination Local programme and the Carnegie UK Trust’s Neighbourhood News initiative, which have managed through small grants “to experiment, innovate and reach new audiences; whilst helping to alleviate some of the day-to-day financial pressures faced by those at the coal face”.
  2. Access: He argues that the BBC could open up its historic archive to the hyperlocal publishers so that they can make use of it, especially considering that local history and historical content is popular on hyperlocal media.
  3. Discoverability: To reach new audiences and promote their content, Damien Radcliffe advises mainstream media to link to hyperlocal content as well as potentially purchasing and republishing their material.
  4. Partnership: “Partnering with hyperlocal players to bring their content to a wider audience and to help fill gaps in their own original reporting base”.

But for journalist Hamoud Almahmoud, the real challenge lies in “training the journalist to do in-depth stories based on data, and finding data where it is unavailable. That will take lobbying with NGOs and other bodies to open up data sets for journalists”.

While there remain many challenges, it’s safe to say that data and local and hyperlocal media are made for each other.  Data journalism enables readers to break stories down to a hyperlocal level, as it uses data collected from the very communities hyperlocal sites are targeting.