My Little Crony

Country/area: United States

Organisation: NA

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 9 Nov 2020

Credit: Sophie Hill

Project description:

My Little Crony is an interactive visualization of the connections between Tory politicians and companies being awarded government contracts during the pandemic. Users can explore this interlocking web for themselves and click through to read the underlying investigative reporting.

Impact reached:

While there had been a great deal of excellent investigative reporting on the procurement scandal — typically by small outlets like Byline Times and OpenDemocracy — it was receiving relatively little coverage by the larger newspapers and by broadcast media. I think that the main impact of “My Little Crony” was to bundle these stories together into one simple conclusion: this is cronyism.

“My Little Crony” was covered by the Metro and City A.M. and discussed on BBC Radio 4 and LBC. It was also shared widely on social networking sites like Twitter and Reddit. I wrote op-eds for Byline Times and the Guardian describing how I made the visualization and why this procurement scandal matters. 

Valerie Vaz, the Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, cited “My Little Crony” in parliament and told her opposite number, Jacob Rees-Mogg, that it was “well worth a look”. Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, wrote on Twitter that the visualization “raises far too many links for the government to ignore”. 

I encouraged users of “My Little Crony” to sign a petition calling for a public inquiry into public contracts awarded during the pandemic. While I can’t make any strong claims about a causal impact (!), the petition crossed the 100,000 signature threshold a few days after “My Little Crony” was launched, meaning that it will be debated in parliament.


Techniques/technologies used:

The first step in creating “My Little Crony” was to manually create a spreadsheet of the most important connections: firms owned by Tory party donors that won Covid contracts. I relied on excellent investigative reporting by outlets like Byline Times and OpenDemocracy to establish these links, as well as using data directly from the Electoral Commission and Companies House. Next, I began to flesh out this map by adding further links that give the reader important context: for example, the fact that Kate Bingham, the chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, is married to Jesse Norman, a Conservative MP and minister.

Once I had assembled this data, I created the visualization in R using the package “visNetwork” and deployed it as an interactive app with Shiny. The main challenge at this stage was trying to ensure the map was visually legible, even as I added more and more links. I experimented with different ways of conveying information in the visualization, like using icons to denote different categories of organization, color-coding the lines depicting contracts and donations, and scaling the width of the lines to indicate the value of the contract or donation.

I wanted the project to be completely open-source, so I made the underlying data and the code publicly available on Github. This allowed users to make suggestions about additional links that should be added to the map by filing a pull request on Github.

As the map grew larger and larger, I worried that it might become overwhelming to first time users who might not know where to begin. So I experimented with creating short screen recordings to highlight particular stories (a sort of low-budget animation!).

What was the hardest part of this project?

For me, the hardest part of this project was the logistics. As a full-time PhD student, I originally decided to create My Little Crony as a fun side project — and a useful distraction from nervously watching the results of the 2020 US Presidential election come in! 

I certainly did not anticipate the reaction that this site would get — in fact, the site went down several times in the first week when the server got overwhelmed. As an “amateur” data journalist, there were many important issues (like accessibility, mobile readiness, and potential legal exposure) that I hadn’t given full consideration to. It was also difficult to balance maintaining the site with my day job of teaching and researching!



What can others learn from this project?

I’m not certain that I’m qualified to answer this question since I am not even a journalist myself! 

But I think one important feature of “My Little Crony” was the idea of telling a cumulative story — where users are first confronted with a visually striking map indicating significant overlap between political donors and recipients of government contracts. With this context established, users can then zoom in to view particular cases or hop from one node to another to explore the map. I think that this type of open-ended interactive visualization is very useful in allowing users to feel more in control, especially when faced with complex and somewhat abstract issues.

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