Guest post by Josh Thompson, BC b-sides

In government we end up collecting a lot of data. These vast spreads of information give us a traceable history of the province and help us develop policies and informed business decisions – but why stop there? Since July 2011, B.C. has made more than 3,000 of these datasets freely and easily accessible to citizens – a first in Canada. So how does this data get used?

This post is part three and the final segment of a few posts on open data I’ve shared over over the past week. This time I’m telling the story of how media outlets use open data to better communicate with British Columbians. If you missed the previous posts on open data, here’s part one and part two.

 

Meet Leslie

Leslie is an investigative data journalist at Global News Toronto. Her national work revolves around distilling large amounts of data to uncover hidden truths, or using data to better illustrate a story to viewers. A University of British Columbia journalism grad, she’s done some fantastic investigative journalism, including working on an Emmy winning documentary on Ghana’s digital wastelands (it’s well worth a watch).

A bit of history

Leslie started with Global in 2011, right around open data’s infancy in B.C. So while she could not speak to how journalism has changed since the introduction of open data, she does say that, “open data does make everything so much easier,” and that she’s seeing more and more information being released. “Not having to make an information request saves me time and money and it also saves the government time and money,” says Leslie.

Before open data, journalists like Leslie would acquire data from the federal government or the Government of B.C. by making an information requests under the federal Access to Information Act or B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act respectively, both of which can sometimes require a small fee, depending on the volume of information requested. In Leslie’s experience, when requesting data at the federal level from Statistics Canada the process can take several days for a clerk to retrieve, package and send the data. But other requests for information can take longer. Leslie says that, “Freedom of information requests usually take at least 30 days,” making it impossible to use that data for a breaking news story. She did emphasize that “Freedom of information requests do have their place, they will always exist side-by-side with open data.”

Versatile

With the attention spans of media viewers getting shorter and shorter, it’s more important than ever to be able to convey large amounts of information in a quick, easy to understand way. Leslie explained that, “text or video is not always the best way to connect with people – open data lets us present information in lots of different ways.” Leslie has made quite a few interactive visualizations from B.C.’s open data, including this map that shows liquor consumption per region, using this open data from the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch. Click on the image below to use the app:

 

Leslie also created data visualisations  illustrating the population vulnerabilities of B.C. wildlife. She used this open data from the Ministry of Environment, which was released as part of Environmental Reporting BC’s engagement with British Columbians on the environment. You can use the app by clicking on the image below:

Instant news requires instant data

Our culture of perma-connected smartphones not only facilitates our shortened attention spans, but also fuels the expectation of instant news. Unfortunately that also means that it can be really difficult for journalists to put together a story that has all the background, additional information or broader context for an article. Leslie told me about a recent story in Toronto where someone had taken a picture of a rat in a grocery store. Understandably there was a public outcry and media outlets picked up the story. Leslie was able to use health inspector open data to give a detailed report on how widespread the rodent problem was in the city – accurately illustrating the issue. When a story gets big fast, access to open data quickly provides some hard data for background. For breaking news, the importance of open data cannot be understated.

It’s not every day that I get to talk to a reporter and be on the asking end of the questions – it was great to hear from Leslie the impact open data has for media and ultimately, British Columbians. You can connect with Leslie on Twitter, or see more of her open data visualizations on her Global bio page.

To find open data in B.C., search the DataBC Catalogue.

This guest post is written by Josh from the BC b-sides blog, part of a three part series he wrote showcasing how British Columbians consume and create with open data. You can check out more of his writing on @BCGovNewsThe Province of BC Facebook page, and of course the BC b-sides blog. You can also get to know him a bit better and what BC b-sides is all about in this video.

 


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