Although data journalism is becoming more and more popular, it’s still quite rare to see a major story in a national newspaper that relies primarily on new data analysis.
But the Guardian seems to be bucking the trend somewhat. In recent weeks it’s run stories on the likely impact of the government’s proposed minimum pricing on alcohol and the geographic trends in prescriptions of antidepressants.
Both of these stories used the data analysis of James Ball, a former Investigative Journalism student at City University and who worked for a time with Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
The anti-depressants story is the more interesting, not for its content but because it used data that was freely-available, as James explains:
First, we gathered prescription data from the online database managed by the NHS Information Centre.
This quarterly information was compiled to get annual numbers covering 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010 – the most recent full year with available data. In order to make the numbers comparable, we then linked the raw prescription numbers to the ONS mid-year population estimates.
This allowed us to calculate the prescriptions per 100,000 figure in the data below, which controls for the different sizes of PCTs, if not their different levels of wealth, employment and general illness.
Using some data techniques and information available for free, online, to anyone, whether a journalist or not, provided a solid exclusive for the Guardian. But with data it’s not always easy to know whether what you’ve done is right, however thorough you’ve been.
The story came out on March 5, and later that day a lecturer at Cardiff University blogged about it, suggesting that the apparently higher numbers of prescriptions in northern areas could simply be because prescriptions were being made out for smaller periods of time. Shorter prescription lengths = more individual prescriptions other a set period.
She later updated her post with some further research she’d done that seemed to bear out the Guardian’s claims – but it’s not clear whether the Guardian had done that work themselves before publication. It could have significantly undermined their story, showing that it’s not just ability with data that counts; you also need the curiosity and skepticism of a good journalist.