The Bureau Local is part of The Bureau for Investigative Journalism and was launched in 2017. It is a network of national and local news publications, journalists, bloggers, technologists, and citizens from across the UK. They run collaborative investigations on issues such as the housing crisis, domestic violence, and immigration, while also holding those in power to account. It has won many awards including the Innovation Prize at the British Journalism Awards (2017), and the European Press Prize (2018). Megan Lucero is Director of The Bureau Local.
Everything we look at is through the lens of a story. If we’re scrutinizing local council finances or local government documents, we always want to ask why are we looking at this? What are we trying to find out? So we start with a narrative form.
Could you describe your tech strategy as it exists at Bureau Local right now? And do you have a tech team to deliver it?
At the heart of Bureau Local is a data and tech strategy that’s very simple in the sense that we bring new sources into our little central team of five, but we’re trying to serve journalists, storytellers and active citizens across the country. We do this by taking on a single topic and do the heavy lifting in terms of getting the information out there. So it might mean pulling down every single council’s local accounts and consolidating this into a giant database, but then synthesizing it into an easy and accessible format for journalists or citizens. There is manual work here, programmatic work, then some analysis. But actually our end product ends up being quite simple – a Google sheet, a quick postcode searcher, or a simple visualization. We also produce what’s called a reporting recipe; a document that guides any person through the story and the information.
Everything we look at is through the lens of a story. If we’re scrutinizing local council finances or local government documents, we always want to ask why are we looking at this? What are we trying to find out? So we start with a narrative form. The reporting recipe gives an overview of what we’re investigating. It tells you what we did to get the information, how you can access it, and scrutinize your own area. This is often done in a collaborative phase when we haven’t found the answers yet, but we’ve pulled a lot of the data down. Then when we tell the story, we’ll either build our own in-house visualizations or search tools. We’ve partnered with a digital agency called Outlandish who help us make information more accessible.
We have a tech lead on our team. He predominantly writes in Python, it’s his language of choice and where he operates. We use GitHub, AWS and PythonAnywhere for our own data compilation and analysis. Our reporters use mySociety and a tool called WhatDoTheyKnow that allows journalists to send FoI requests in batch, and monitor FoI requests coming in.
But the heart of our tech stack is really basic; tools like Google suite – Google docs, Google sheets. We use Slack as a form of digital communication with our network. We do email bulletins as the main format to let people know that we’re investigating something, or launching a project and that they can get involved. We use Google Hangouts for remote working and remote calls. We use Trello for project management. We might partner and collaborate with organizations like the Open Data Institute or the Alan Turing Institute.
Can you talk about your security processes? Is this of concern to you in terms of data handling and sensitivity of data?
We do open source investigating, so we’re not concerned about someone finding out about what we’re doing or getting access to something. We openly announce what we’re about to investigate, like our recent housing benefit investigation. We invite all kinds of collaborators, not just journalists, but citizens, experts and policy makers, into that process. We have a regular data cleaning policy. We don’t retain anything on Slack for more than a month. The wider organization uses Keybase as a secure form of communication and that has a short retention cleaning policy. We have an automated data feed that pulls in from the latest government releases every morning.
Everyone’s doing it for the public good, but there is also the recognition that being part of something bigger makes their story, issue, or argument bigger.
When we start a new investigation, we ask people to agree that no one’s going to publish or share information wider than their community of people, or until a certain date. We’ve never had anybody break this. Everyone’s doing it for the public good, but there is also the recognition that being part of something bigger makes their story, issue, or argument bigger.
What’s the single most important issue facing Bureau Local right now?
I would say it’s the ecosystem. We formed as a data journalism solution to the closure of local newsrooms and a centralized infrastructure that could offer support. Without hiring reporters on the ground around the UK, we looked at what could contribute to the lack of accountability, and the lack of resources. In the almost three years that we’ve been around, there has been an astronomical amount of change. We’ve seen local newsrooms shutting down. We’ve seen local reporters losing their jobs. The government launched the Cairncross Review, looking at the future of local news. The BBC launched their Local Democracy Reporter scheme. There’s Google’s Digital News Initiative. A lot of people have come into the ecosystem, trying to find solutions to challenges and problems. But at the same time we’ve seen a hemorrhaging of money, resources, reporters and newsrooms.
One of the great challenges for the Bureau Local is it’s in a constant state of evolution. How do you build the future of something when you are still laying the foundation??
Our whole concept is based on the idea that local journalists work together to investigate. But people leave this space so rapidly. Obviously for every one that leaves, there’s more people that come forward, but it’s something we struggle with all the time. One of the great challenges for the Bureau Local is it’s in a constant state of evolution. How do you build the future of something when you are still laying the foundation??
We’re launching a steering group soon with members of the network, so they can help us shape our future; to make sure we’re building a service and programme that means something to people and is actually useful. Three years ago, when we announced Bureau Local as an idea, we toured the country and talked to people about what they thought was useful. But so much has changed between then and now, we need updated feedback to make sure that the thing we’re building is still useful in the right ways.
We have challenges with collaboration in that a lot of journalists sign up and then say I have no time, my editor is asking me to file 10 stories a day, and I’m required to get x number of clicks a week. Or people say it’s a strain on resources. But then there’s the wider challenge of how people access information. We’re not setting out to rebuild local newspapers. I just think people are accessing information in different ways than just reading local newspapers. So we collaborate with all kinds of storytellers, but one of the biggest challenges for us is how to serve people while also evolving in an ecosystem that’s changing every day.
Could you talk us through a major tech decision you’ve made recently and why you made it?
When we first started, there was a discussion about building our own platform. We decided against it as we’re not software developers. But it does mean we’re dependent on existing tech resources for participation and collaboration. That’s where Slack has come in. It’s definitely not a perfect platform as it’s built for workplaces not for everyday people. We’re trying to get people who care about their communities, people who are really active members of their community – journalists, charity workers or case workers – to be part of the journalistic process and use our Slack channels. If you work in an office and have it up on your screen it’s great, but it’s very difficult for people to use it in their everyday lives. It doesn’t slot into the way they already work. There’s something called Loomio, which we’ve heard about from the Bristol Cable, but it seems to be more of a discussion and voting platform. We’ve contemplated WhatsApp and GroundSource. But we have nearly 1000 people on Slack and we haven’t really found the thing that’s worth moving from it for. What would it be? How would the migration work? Would we carry everyone with us? Is the product really offering that much more? So what we’ve done is really try to throw ourselves into Slack as an experiment, which seems slightly counterintuitive as it’s not perfect. But if we make it a useful place that people want to come to everyday, then maybe it will generate more activity. Part of the steering group’s task will be looking at the platforms and interesting things that we think are best.
In our dream scenario something would be custom built for our needs, our people and the platform they would most want to use. But we don’t have the resources. So we have to ask ourselves what is out there, what are we already using and how can we be using things more effectively like Slack, and we’re potentially looking to build more on all of this.
Every month we host an open newsroom, a monthly meeting that has a specific theme. We’ve had one on freelancing and remote working. We bring in guests. We run a weekly story clinic, a discussion group where people can get help and advice from us and other members of the network. We run a daily bot that pulls down the latest local government releases that might help them with their reporting. During the Covid-19 crisis, it acts as a daily check in so everyone can connect and enjoy interactions with others – including sharing pet photos! This is all on Slack. And it’s working very well for the local reporters and technologists who have Slack and use it every day. But our fear is that it’s not actually reaching the wider group of people that we want it to be reaching. In our dream scenario something would be custom built for our needs, our people and the platform they would most want to use. But we don’t have the resources. So we have to ask ourselves what is out there, what are we already using and how can we be using things more effectively like Slack, and we’re potentially looking to build more on all of this.
How does tech contribute to your journalism?
An example would be our reporting on the housing crisis. People told us they wanted information specifically about affordability, conditions, and what it’s like for the most vulnerable. Housing benefits had been frozen by the government, they’d not injected any more into it since 2016. So we looked at a single day of data, all the listings for jobs, for flat adverts for two-bed places, we captured this data down, then applied it against local housing allowance and whether or not this was affordable. Then people were telling us that landlords wouldn’t rent to you, even if you could pay it, because you’re on benefits. They just discriminate. So we pulled down all the emails and phone numbers of these landlords and contacted them, and over half said this was true, they wouldn’t rent to anyone on benefits. This is where we throw most of our tech and our thinking – into the story. We built a calculator where you can search your area and you get the results as if you were there experiencing exactly what we just did. So our questions were how are we going to open up this data and how do we do it in a way people can really understand it?
How do you solve the question of information access for any one investigation?
For us, it’s a tension between allocating resources with the strategy and implementation, and solving the problem in front of us that is the story or the issue. And much more thinking needs to go into how it reaches people, how it includes people, how we tell it.
People have a right to local information, people need quality information about their lives, about their local government, in order to better their lives, in order to understand their world, and to tell stories about it.
We really respect the open data world, but we think in some ways one of its failures is its pursuit to just make things open, not thinking about how truly accessible things are to everyday people. A lot of data experts often think that when governments or organizations release PDFs as a form of information, that this is really inaccessible, and this is true. But we believe that releasing a giant SQL or an API can be just as inaccessible. People have a right to local information, people need quality information about their lives, about their local government, in order to better their lives, or order to understand their world, and to tell stories about it. It’s incredibly complicated what we do from an investigative data point of view, but it’s actually quite simple in terms of how we present it. We’re not an organization that has an R&D approach in tackling the thinking around our systems. We put all of our energy into our journalism and we’ve more recently been thinking about how we open that up and make it easy for people to access, but still through quite a basic lens. But we really struggle and probably what we need is some sort of support, maybe partnering with a company that can help us think like a service provider and how a service provider would think about tech rather than how a journalist would think about tech.
Tell us about the five dominating tech platforms and what they mean to you. How reliant on them are you currently and what do you use them for? How do you feel about using them?
So I should preface this by saying that the reason we exist is because of Google’s Digital News Initiative. I don’t say this to defend Google by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it’s important context. To be honest, any innovative news project that exists was probably funded under Google. There are very few philanthropists, very few grants, very few foundations that are interested in investing in journalism. And there are very few that are interested in investing in innovation in journalism. It’s kind of shocking when you see how many different people have become dependent on Google in order to launch a podcast or launch a new initiative or try a new thing. It shouldn’t be this way.