BBC Shared Data Unit

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: BBC

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

The BBC Shared Data Unit has continued to promote and support data journalism at a regional level across the UK, whilst making national and local headlines with a series of public interest data investigations.  The team’s collaborative model sees it share its data journalism with more than 1,000 local news outlets across television, radio, print and digital.  During the course of the year, the team have also led three masterclasses in investigative journalism for regional journalists, and hosted more than 30 drop-in sessions for journalists wanting to learn key technical skills. 

The team’s public interest data investigations have made headlines across the BBC and regional news teams across the UK.  The team focuses on finding news stories that are hiding in plain sight, using data journalism techniques to explore the impact of local and national government policies on the lives of individuals. 

A commitment to transparency and the open data movement is at the heart of our team and our output.  We have demonstrated how adopting open data principles enhances the trust in our reporting, builds a personal relationship with audiences and helps to engage them in the process of journalism.   We demonstrate our commitment to transparency through sharing source data, methods and code for every project we embark upon.

Prior to the pandemic, the SDU had offered in-person training at the team’s headquarters in Birmingham.  When the team resorted to working from home, it had to explore new ways of delivering its commitment to help promote data journalism skills across the regional news industry.  We piloted several approaches and asked for feedback from participants.  We now have a three-tiered approach to delivering training

  1. A week-long masterclass

  2. A chapterised version of the masterclass taking place every Monday for ten weeks

  3. Drop-in lunchtime sessions

The week-long masterclass offers journalists more than 25 hours of in-person training in investigative data journalism.  Participants develop skills to be able to source, clean, analyse and visualise datasets for their audiences, as well as exploring more advanced techniques such as how to maximise their use of Freedom of Information laws, how to scrutinise Companies House accounts and how to use advanced internet searches.  The chapterised version of the masterclass gives the same experience to journalists unable to commit to the week-long experience, whilst the drop-in sessions give journalists an opportunity to pick up a new skill over their lunch hour.  On the back of our training, regional news journalists have been able to tell stories that would otherwise have gone untold.

Description of portfolio:

The team has demonstrated a wide range of technical skills across its portfolio.  Techniques include accessing open data sources, using Freedom of Information laws, scraping data from websites or building our own databases.  What matters is finding the right data to bring important information into the public record.

For example, this year the team’s senior reporter Alex Homer published a series of investigations into the work of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).  His reporting examined three key area:

  •  Internal reviews by the DWP when a person claiming benefits dies or comes to serious harm

  • The rising proportion of people denied disability benefits who were taking the government to court and winning

  • Calls for further reform to fast-tracked terminal illness benefits. 

The stories were picked up by UK national newspapers ranging from The Mirror and Guardian to MailOnline and The Times, and they were also used by BBC national television news, local BBC TV and radio and more than 100 regional news outlets partnered with the SDU. Debbie Abrahams MP told the Work and Pensions Committee on 7 July one “exposé by the BBC” led dozens more families to share experiences of their relatives’ deaths, and later that month at Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson confirmed the Minister of State would meet with Ms Abrahams and bereaved relatives to discuss this issue.

Other examples of impactful public interest work include: 

  • An expose into how police forces were failing to use new powers available to them to protect people from stalkers

  • A deep dive into the impact of the pandemic on councils’ finances 

  • An investigation into the mental health crisis sparked by Covid-19

  • An investigation into the “prejudice” faced by people with non-visible disabilities when applying for a blue badge parking permit. 

The team has demonstrated a wide range of technical skills across its portfolio.  Techniques include accessing open data sources, using Freedom of Information laws, scraping data from websites or building our own databases.  What matters is finding the right data to bring important information into the public record.

For example, our investigation into council finances involved building a spreadsheet containing information on the budgets set by 170 councils.  The resulting analysis, with more than 5,000 separate data points, involved months of data gathering and cleaning.  The subsequent story revealed how UK councils faced a £3bn black hole in their budgets as they emerged from the pandemic.

In March, the team reported on the problems faced by 300,000 children of UK prisoners amid concerns that they had been “forgotten” during the pandemic.  These included delays to a video call system which was not fully rolled out until nine months after the start of the pandemic and had suffered a range of problems, and variations in when prisons allowed in-person visits after national and localised lockdown restrictions.

We began by using a web-based scraper to log each time an official MoJ prison page was updated. These sites are intended to serve as a portal to families of inmates in their respective facilities, through which people can book social visits or receive any other important information. We used the scraper to log when updates were made to each individual  prison page. 

The dates returned by the scraper were then checked through Wayback Machine, the internet archive service which allows users to view how a particular webpage would have looked on a date in the past.

This allowed us to record a date as to when the site was updated to announce the reopening of social visits and any subsequent closures. 

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