Air Quality data and telling stories

One of the key areas of interest for the MediaMill project is the way data can be part of a storytelling process.  So it was interesting to see a piece of ‘data-driven storytelling’ in the Gloucester Citizen.

Pollution left at dangerous levels for 10 years in Gloucester as Priory Road most polluted in county
Air pollution in parts of Gloucester has been dangerously high for the last decade, it can be revealed.

The reveal is that Gloucester, like many places in the UK, is struggling to meet it’s air quality targets, in particular in its Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs). The story is an interesting mix of data and reporting from the area.

Data from the city council Local Air Quality Management Report gets top billing

Data from the city council Local Air Quality Management Report gets top billing

When I asked Jenny Eastwood, editor of the paper, whether it was the paper that crunched the numbers she confirmed that the ‘number crunching’ came from elsewhere (the report) but the “reporter did the leg work with doctors and residents”.  That’s the compelling mix that data journalism offers – stories that make sense of the data. That mix of data and ‘from the street’ story telling is not new but it’s not as common as you’d think. In fact it’s increasingly common to see the data separated from the stories. The thinking is that the data becomes more useable if the data becomes an infographic or interactive map that allows you to postcode search or compare data. The stories from people affected are often in a separate section. So it’s nice to see faces and places next to numbers in this piece.

It’s by no means perfect. From an online journalism perspective, the lack of links is particularly disappointing. There is no link to the report so that people can see the source which is a missed chance given that the council seem to have taken their eye off the ball as far as their air pollution page on the website goes.  Maybe that’s what is most telling that this story “reveals” a problem that has been a problem for 10 years. You could argue it’s a problem that’s been hiding in the data.  Despite all the ‘openness’ the issue hasn’t reached the mainstream.

But air pollution is a hot topic at the moment. There are a range of products and projects that want to make air quality real;  Air quality monitoring pigeonsAir quality pets;  Overlaying data on everyday life. The area offers a rich pot of case studies for making data ‘mean’ something beyond the numbers.

There is a lot to consider for open data and open government data makers looking to create, harness and develop civic and social innovation around their data.