Electric cars

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: BBC

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 4 May 2019

Credit: Aimee Stanton, Pete Sherlock, Alex Homer, David Gregory

Project description:

The UK government wants to “lead the world in zero emission vehicle technology” by encouraging drivers around the country to go green and choose an ultra low or zero emissions vehicle.

The BBC’s Shared Data Unit used open data to examine whether the infrastructure of electric car charging points was in place to meet the anticipated rise in demand.

We found there was an uneven geographical distribution of charging devices, with more than a third of local authorities having ten or fewer locations where drivers can plug in their vehicles.


Impact reached:

The story featured across the BBC’s network news programmes including the News Channel and Radio 5 Live, as well as regional radio stations.  As part of the Shared Data Unit’s commitment to make its data journalism available to the wider regional news industry, the story generated local stories in 30 local titles across the UK.

The story provoked a wider debate about the availability and reliability of open data on the chargepoint network.  We analysed data from Open Charge Map, a crowd-sourced website of charging locations with an open API.  Not every location features on Open Charge Map, but it aims to be a “reliable single point of reference for charging equipment location information”.  It certainly had thousands more charge points registered than the government’s own National ChargePoint Registry, while data held by private companies including the electric vehicle charging platform Zap-Map was not available to us.  As proponents of open data, we felt our audience would benefit from the most comprehensive analysis of charge point data we could bring them in order for them to make informed choices.

Six months later, the Department for Transport published its first experimental statistics on charge point coverage, sourced from Zap-Map’s platform.



Techniques/technologies used:

We used R Studio and the Haversine formula to perform 49 million calculations for each distance (as the crow flies) between each of the 7,000 charging points, using their latitude and longitude coordinates and then storing the shortest distance. That allowed us to report the average distance between charging locations for each local authority area; a measure of how the existing infrastructure compared across the UK. We published the script we used in a GitHub repository so anyone interested could follow our method – we publish our methodology in this way for all of our reports – and recreate it themselves.

We interrogated the API of Open Charge Map and used Open Refine to convert the data from JSON format into a csv, which we published as a public Google Sheet we shared with our network of local news partners and our online readers.

We used Carto to make an interactive map showing the average distance between charge points across the UK.


What was the hardest part of this project?

The hardest part of the project was understanding the limitations and availability of the data on charge points.  Private providers suggested Open Charge Map was not the best source, and were resistant to us telling a story about a “patchy” network.  Though we felt by using the most complete open source data available to us, we would be providing helpful and informative information into the public domain.

We sourced additional data from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to calculate a rate of charge points per registered electric cars for each local authority area in the UK.  The calculation allowed our audience to explore those areas where charge point infrastructure was described as “patchy” by the RAC.


What can others learn from this project?

Through highlighting the limitations of available data, journalists can put contribute to the wider policy debate around what should be published by public authorities and private providers.  We highlighted an issue of “patchy coverage” using technical skills to analyse and present the open data held by Open Charge Map in a compelling and personalised package.  

We also demonstrated our model – that through equipping journalists with the skills to interrogate data – we can improve and enhance local news coverage for all our audiences.  The reporter that worked on the story, Aimee Stanton, was on secondment with the BBC from JPI Media.  During her time with the Shared Data Unit, she developed the technical skills alongside the core team to be able to tell the story.

Project links: