Information wants to be free

Or at least, I want information to be freed. And thanks to the new Freedom of Information Act 2014, signed into law today, it just got a little more free in Ireland.

Now there are a lot of caveats. Not all officialdom falls under its terms, there are exceptions for things like commercial sensitivity (which can be very broadly defined), not to mention the cost of appeals.

But still, the 2014 Act is an improvement on the regime it replaces.

So suddenly there’s a wealth of information at my fingertips, if only I knew what to ask for.

Over the years, in piecemeal fashion, journalists have successfully sought information on a great number of topics, but not in a structured manner. A local reporter in Donegal might have asked a question of the local council, but no one has ever gone through every council in Ireland seeking the same information. Or a journalist sought particular databases from one government department, or one quango, but not all of them.

So here’s my question: What old FOI requests could be applied more broadly? Feel free to leave your answers below, or if you prefer, drop me a line at

Freelance Forum: All you need to know

There are only only six days to go until Freelance Forum Autumn 2014. Have you reserved your place yet?

Freelance Forum is a regular one day event designed to keep freelance journalists up to date with the latest developments in their industry. Aimed at writers and photographers, and hoping to cover print, broadcast and online, it is organised by Dublin Freelance NUJ Branch.

Speakers at the Autumn 2014 Forum include Lyra McKee, a young Belfast based journalist who used crowdfunding to finance an investigation into the death of Rev Robert Bradford MP, RTE correspondent Richard Dowling and Ray Mitchell, assistant national director of the HSE on the new Freedom of Information Act, as well as commissioning editors Frank Murtagh and Emmet Ryan on pitching skills, and representatives of the Mary Raftery Fund and Simon Cumers Fund giving details of how to use philanthropic funding for journalism projects.

Full details of the event, which takes place on 20 October in Buswells Hotel, Dublin, are available at the Dublin Freelance website.

Bookings can be made using Paypal or credit/debit cards.

What’s wrong with this graph?

It’s been niggling me since the result was announced, but there were other things to do, so it took me a few days to sit down and scratch this itch.

The headline is simple. Older voters defeated the Scottish independence referendum, as illustrated by this graph breaking down voter intentions.

But data journalism can be a tricky thing, and graphs can easily misleading unless designed with a bit of thought. Take a look at the first bar. It illustrates the voting intentions of 16 and 17 year old voters. A two-year gap. Then there’s 18-24, a seven year group. Then ten-year steps until we reach 64, then “65+”.

Now look again. There’s no information about varying turnout rates, and even with 84% overall voting, I’m willing to bet turnout increased with voter age. Yet there’s a graph that gives the visual impression that over 65s (a cohort that covers a 30-40 year age range) is the same size as one for 16 and 17 year olds.

The graph, whether intentionally or otherwise, gives the impression of a small minority overruling the wishes of a majority.

And that annoys me.

God and the census

How questions are phrased in a survey is important, as any market researcher or social scientist will tell you. And appearing early on a list matters too. One Irish TD even went to court a few years ago to argue that when arranging names in alphabetical order, the returning officer should ignore the Ó at the start of his name.

So consider the following: the number of people who answers “No religion” in reply to a census question in the UK is 14.1 million, one in four of the population (25% in England, 37% in Scotland, 32% in Wales, 7% in Northern Ireland).

Meanwhile in the Republic of Ireland, the number answering “No Religion” to the census question is 4%. (And that figure is also a matter of debate).

Now take a look at the two forms below.

Notice anything?

Above: Religious question in the Irish census. Below, the religion question on the UK census form.

More terms, more conditions

I had a look at the Irish Times android app terms and conditions a few days ago when it prompted me for an upgrade. For completeness, below are the access requests for some other Irish news apps.

Short version: RTE and the Irish Independent look for the same call information as the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner is the only one not to ask for call information, and RTE is the only one which doesn’t look for location information.

Irish Examiner

Irish Independent


Back to the future

From the New York Times and Washington Post comes news of yet another attempt to Fix Comments. Everyone wants to engage with audience, trouble is the results end up costing as many readers as they attract.

But why are the comments so horrible? I’d argue a large part of the problem is it’s because every content management system built to handle comments is built to serve the publishers needs. Its all about registering users, collecting all that valuable demographic data, and selling advertising space.

Remember Usenet?

Usenet allowed you to use the client of your choice, and the most valuable thing about my Usenet client was the filter. If a commenter was an idiot, I could ignore him. If a commenter was insightful and worth reading, automatically highlight her posts.

When first started, it looked to me like a clunky web implementation of something that already worked far better on Usenet. The trouble is, ten years later, most commenting systems haven’t moved on from that first clunky design.

Where are my threads? My kill file? My watch lists? Sorted lists? Offline reading? Nowhere. Commenting has spent a decade getting better at one thing only: making sure I see advertising.

Terms and conditions apply

Update: Irish Times communities editor David Cochrane has pointed out that, while the main @IrishTimes twitter account does not engage with followers, many of the staff who have twitter accounts do engage. I’m happy to clarify that point.

Data protection is boring. Obscure activist groups in Austria suing Facebook over their cookie policy, or yet another Guardian powerpoint from Edward Snowden about the NSA, or yet another heavily written European Court judgement.

Then, sometimes, there’s a moment when data protection and privacy issues come to the forefront.
This morning, the Irish Times app on my phone asked for permission to update. I clicked yes, and before updating, the app told me what systems and information it needed access to.

For some reason the Irish Times wants access to Device ID and Call Information, which “allows the app to determine the phone number and device IDs, whether a call is active, and the remote number connected by a call.”

I’m not an expert, but that looks like the Irish Times wants to know my phone number, and every number I call. I uninstalled.

Why would the Irish Times need that information?

I asked that question of the Irish Times twitter account earlier today, but so far I’ve received no answer.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised by that. A quick look at the Irish Times twitter feed shows it broadcasts headlines and story links, but doesn’t engage with its readers or followers.

Pressure Points

I posted this graph in yesterday’s 200 Words.

I created it as a clearer version of Simon McGarr’s “Scandal Timeline”, below.

Journalists have criticised the graph, pointing out the story in response to which it was created — Tuam mass graves — was broken by the Daily Mail (and earlier, the Connacht Tribune).

They have a point. The Tribune, Mail and Journal covered it. Philip Boucher-Hayes did an excellent Liveline. That’s the news process. A story breaks. Others move it on.

And yet, there’s a kernel of truth to the graph. It wasn’t until international media reported the story that the Irish Times ran with it. Why, social media asks, didn’t the Paper of Record do its part to move the story on?

McGarr points to other stories fitting the Scandal Timeline template. Gutting Freedom of Information. The McAleese Report. Brian Cowen’s portrait. Pantigate.

Yes, some were broken by the mainstream press. Yes, the Timeline is a blunt instrument. But yes, there are stories that bubble under until social pressure pushes them outwards.

Too often, a story isn’t reported until there’s an official reaction, Too often, it’s not until a foreign outlet reports that an Irish story gets an official reaction.

Serious Stories

While following the Tuam mass graves scandal, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on some programme proposals for the Sound+Vision and Mary Raftery Journalism Fund. The former are the light entertainment features, the latter is a bit more serious.

And although both deadlines are approaching fast, I’ve been devoting more time and energy to the light stories, even though the latter stands to earn me more money.

I’ve been a journalist now for a dozen years. And for more than half of that time, I devoted myself to two stories, the Morris and Smithwick tribunals. The Morris tribunal documented gross abuses of Garda power in Donegal. For its first two years, as I was an occasional guest on Vincent Browne’s radio show, I’d make that point time and again, as Vincent treated Donegal as the “light relief” tribunal, in contrast to real tribunals looking at political corruption. Eventually, that changed.

There are days when I want to do more stories like that, when I can devote the time to filling out an application form for Mary Raftery funding. And there are too many days when I just want to do some lightweight stories and get paid.


The Game of Thrones guide to Irish politics

Always pays his debts.
Even if it bankrupts the state.

Regarded by some as the real king in the North,
by others as a bastard.
Cool beard.

The king of even further North

Blonde. Lives overseas. The real queen.

Strong links to the old regime
Short of supporters now
No one really wants him

Pompous. Self-important
Hasn’t realised he’s someone else’s bitch.

Creepy weird religious fanatic

Politically neutered
No longer a player

Who knows whose side this one is on

You’ve forgotten about him, haven’t you?
Far as we know he’s still off fighting climate change

Mister Smug

If only…