Tag Archives: vancouver sun

On Journalism & Crowdsourcing: the good, the bad, the ugly

Last week the Vancouver Sun (my local paper) launched a laudable experiment. They took all of the campaign finance data from the last round of municipal elections in the Lower Mainland (the Greater Vancouver area in Canada) and posted a significant amount of it on their website. This is exactly the type of thing I’ve been hoping that newspapers would do more of in Canada (much like British newspapers – especially The Guardian – have done). I do think there are some instructive lessons, so here is a brief list of what I think is good, bad and ugly about the experiment.

The Good:

That it is being done at all. For newspapers in Canada to do anything other than simply repackage text that was (or wasn’t) going to end up in the newsprint sadly still counts as innovation here. Seriously, someone should be applauding the Vancouver sun team. I am. I hope you will to. Moreover, enabling people to do some rudimentary searches is interesting – mostly as people will want to see who the biggest donors are. Of course, no surprise to learn that in many cases the biggest donors in municipal elections (developers) give to all the major parties or players… just to cover their bets. Also interesting is that they’ve invited readers to add “If you find something interesting in the database that you want to share with other readers, go to The Sun’s Money & Influence blog at vancouversun.com/influence and post a comment” and is looking for people to sniff out news stories.

While it is great that the Vancouver Sun has compiled this data, it will be interesting to see who, if anyone uses their data. A major barrier here is the social contract between the paper and those it is looking to engage. The paper won’t actually let you access the data – only run basic searches. This is because they don’t want readers running off and doing something interesting with the data on another website. But this constraint also means you can’t visualize it, (for example put it into a spread sheet and graph) or try to analyze it in some interesting ways. Increasingly our world isn’t one where we tell the story in words, we tell is visually with graphs, charts and visuals… that is the real opportunity here.

I know a few people who would love to do something interesting with the data (like John Jensen or Luke Closs), if they could access it. I also understand that the Vancouver Sun wants the discussion to take place on their page. But if you want people to use the data and do something interesting with it, you have to let them access it: that means downloading it or offering up an API (This is what The Guardian, a newspaper that is serious about letting people use their data, does.). What the Sun could have done was distribute it with an attribution license, so that anybody who used the API had to at least link back to The Sun. But I don’t know a single person out there who with or without a license wouldn’t have linked back to the Sun, thanked them, and driven a bunch a traffic to them. Moreover, if The Sun had a more open approach, it could have likely even enlisted people to to data entry on campaign donations in other districts around the province. Instead, many of the pages for this story sit blank. There are few comment but some like these two that are not relevant and the occasional gem like this one). There is also one from John Jensen, open data hackathon regular who has been trying to visualize this data for months but been unable to since typing up all the data has been time consuming.

At the end of the day, if you want readers to create content for you, to sniff out stories and sift through data, you have to trust them, and that means giving them real access. I can imagine that feels scary. But I think it would work out.

The Ugly:

The really ugly part about this story is that the Vancouver Sun needed to do all this data entry in the first place. Since campaigns are legally required to track donations most track them using… MicroSoft Excel. Then, because the province requires that candidates disclose donations the city in which the candidate is running insists that they submit the list of donations in print. Then that form gets scanned and saved as a PDF. If, of course, the province’s campaign finance law’s were changed so as to require you to submit your donations in an electronic format, then all of the data entry the Sun had to do would disappear and suddenly anyone could search and analyze campaign donations. In short, even though this system is suppose to create transparency, we’ve architected it to be opaque. The information is all disclosed, we’ve just ensured that it is very difficult and expensive to sort through. I’m sadly, not confident that the BC Election Task Force is going to change that although I did submit this as a recommendation.

Some Ideas:

1) I’d encourage the Vancouver Sun to make available the database they’ve cobbled together. I think if they did, I know I would be willing to help bring together volunteers to add donation data from more municipalities and to help create some nice visualizations of the data. I also think it would spark a larger discussion both on their website, and elsewhere across the internet (and possibly even other mediums) around the province. This could become a major issue. I even suspect that there would be a number of people at the next open data hackathon who would take this issue up.

2) Less appealing is to scrape the data set off the Vancouver Sun’s website and then do something interesting with it. I would, of course, encourage whoever did that to attribute the good work of the Vancouver Sun, link back to them and even encourage readers to go and participate in their discussion forum.

If a tree falls in the forest…

If a debate happens in city council, and nobody is around to report on it, does it have an impact?

Last Thursday I noticed that the Toronto edition of the National Post had front page coverage of Toronto’s city council meeting.

Front Page – with a giant picture to boot!

I’m trying to remember the last time a council issue was the lead cover story in the Vancouver Sun… How about the last time there was a photo of a council meeting?

Sadly – from what I can tell – neither The Sun, nor The Province, nor anyone else, have a single reporter exclusively dedicated to Vancouver city hall and municipal politics (if I’m wrong about this please send me a note – who is it?). This is akin to the Globe or National Post failing to assign someone to cover Parliament Hill. Vaughn Palmer does an excellent job covering the BC legislature for The Sun – so why not have someone do the same for municipal politics?

The lack of coverage fosters a city whose political and policy ideas are often unheard and poorly debated, whose municipal scandals go unquestioned and unpublicized and whose council members and mayor go unscrutinized.

Maybe The Sun may feel it simply isn’t profitable to have such a column. I understand (although doubt it). But this function is so important, some solution must be found. Maybe the Vancouver Foundation or some other agency could endow a reporter to cover the City Hall beat.

Or maybe… the Sun should consider outsourcing the role.

Sounds crazy? Admittedly it’s hardly ideal. But a news website in Pasadena, California, recently hired an Indian journalist to cover local politics. The journalist can watch local council meetings over the internet (the same could be done in Vancouver), many documents are available through the city’s website (as they are in Vancouver), and as the editor of the news web site noted “Whether you’re at a desk in Pasadena or a desk in Mumbai, you’re still just a phone call or e-mail away from the interview.” It’s not my favoured solution, but it is better than nothing.

Vancouverites often claim they’re not jealous of Toronto, but maybe we should be. With the Globe, the National Post and the Toronto Star writing regularly about the city’s politics I know I’m feeling envious.

Addition 11:20am PST – David Beers, editor of The Tyee, has emailed me to say: “Was surprised to see you single us out as one who is stingy on coverage of Vancouver city hall. In fact we do have one reporter who has been dogging the issue of homeless housing, covering city council sessions and often the byline on a cover story. Check out Monte Paulsen’s work.”

It is true, the Tyee has more in depth coverage of city hall than anybody else in town… all to glad to be called out on the oversight and hope readers will check out Paulsen’s work. Also, to be fair, the Georgia Straigt does a review of city councilors and talks about municipal politics, but it doesn’t have consistent reporting on the subject.