So you’re keen to report on your local area. But what do you report on? In a session at the second Talk About Local un-conference, Ray Duffill sourced suggestions for finding stories.
A brainstorm of the room (and subsequent discussion) came up with an abundance of ideas:
- Speaking to people on the streets, in the community, cafes, pubs etc;
- Cycling around the area;
- Reading up on local history, for example using:
- the Old Bailey proceedings from 1674 to 1913, online and searchable (free);
- the British library’s digitised, searchable archive of 19th century newspapers (£10 subscription);
- Google Books (free);
- Attending council meetings (the agendas might be boring but the meetings can be lively);
- Reading the minutes of council meetings;
- Attending other local meetings (eg NHS, Police and Fire authority meetings);
- Attending inquests;
- Reading Freedom of Information requests;
- Reading planning applications;
- Reading news feeds (eg RSS feeds via Google Reader);
- Scanning community websites;
- Subscribing to email forums, discussion groups etc;
- Using Wikisplash, a new guide for helping journalists find UK stories;
- Reading the births, marriages and deaths columns of local papers;
- Requesting press releases from local organisations;
- Attending Family Courts (it’s hard to find out what’s on beforehand, but courtserve.net might help);
- Walking a dog.
It was also mentioned that the government is apparently looking to publish outcomes of magistrates’ court cases online in the future, which would be very useful to local bloggers.
The baton then passed to Tom Steinberg, who went into a bit more detail about how online tools can support the sourcing of news, and how to filter out stuff that interests you from the overwhelming amount of information available.
- Google Alerts will send you email or RSS updates of anything you ask it to
- be creative when you’re putting in search terms
- FixMyStreet alerts for local problems.
- WhatDoTheyKnow lets you subscribe to alerts for when someone asks a Freedom of Information request of your council. (Even though the council may not answer, the more people subscribe the less easy it is for the issue to be ignored.)
- TheyWorkForYou feeds: rich data about the work of individual MPs.
- PlanningAlerts notifies you of local planning applications (although it’s currently limited to what it can do with postcodes due to action by Royal Mail).
- Flickr enables people to geotag photos, which means you can subscribe to a feed letting you know of new ones near to you.
If you’re a bit more techy, most of the services listed above make it easy to develop your own tools for re-using their data.
Freedom of Information requests
- Be faultlessly polite in all your correspondence. The people reading your correspondence are rarely those responsible for the information you seek;
- If you don’t get a response from an organisation, follow through the sanctioning process with the Information Commissioner. Make it clear that you are doing so and that you know what is expected of the organisation legally;
- Be careful not to get labelled as ‘vexatious’. Although there is no hard and fast line about how you become labelled as ‘vexatious’, don’t give anyone the chance do so: once they’ve blacklisted you they will never reply to you again. So be minimalist in your approach.
He also said that if you know of public data that exists but you can’t get it under Freedom of Information, try the OPSI unlocking service.
This post is a report of information from other people at a conference. Therefore I may unintentionally have misunderstood or misrepresented what I heard. Please do not treat anything here as fact: check with a reliable source before, say, putting yourself in danger of defending a libel case.