Help Me Investigate’s first spin off story for the maintream media.

Birmingham Post on help Me Investigate
Birmingham Post on help Me Investigate

Whether it is the social media surgeries, the grassroots channel podcast or Be Vocal I’ve always been interested in helping active citizens find new ways to collaborate and communicate.

So it is with Help me Investigate, a site I’ve helped establish alongside Paul Bradshaw (who had the original idea) and Stef Lewandowski (who’s building our prototype site).

Help Me Investigate allows people to ask civic questions and work together to find answers. Since it emerged into life a couple of months ago people have sought answers to questions ranging from:

  • “Why wont’ Birmingham City Council hand over the running of Lightwoods Park to Sandwell Council”
  • “Help me investigate why my doctor has an 0845 number”
  • “What is the tracking process for petitions handed into Birmingham City Council.”

The site feels quite Birmingham centric at the moment simply because we are experimenting using questions about the place where many of us live. As the site evolves that will change.

Who pays for this?

It is funded by Channel 4’s 4ip fund, Screen West Midlands and Advanatage West Midlands and it’s launch attracted interested from the mainstream media. The Guardian summed it up like this:

Rather than a publishing platform, the site is a tool that could equally benefit news organisations and the public; it follows the MySociety mould of successful activism sites like TheyWorkForYou and FixMyStreet.

“Journalists think investigative journalism should be very secretive, but [HelpMeInvestigate] has to be seen to be owned by the community than by journalists because that puts off the public. People can contribute their expertise to answer specific questions, and journalists with no resources could use the site to call on the community for help.”

Today the site, still in a private experimental phase, saw it’s first spin off mainstream media news story.

The Birmingham Post runs an HMI story on Parking Tickets.

This morming the post ran this story about how HMI had found the worst street for parking fines in Birmingham.  The story began here, with a question from Heather Brooke:

Help me investigate on which Birmingham Streets are the most parking tickets issued?

It’s an interesting HMI question because it is about something which bothers many  of us, but it’s also specific and local.  It’s also a classic local newspaper question, but what thye may not take the time to ask.

The next stage was  a freedom of information request, which you can see here on MySociety’s brilliant WhatDoTheyKnow service, which makes FOI requests public and easy to make.

When the information finally arrive in three files another user of the site stepped into to help. Neil Houston likes messing around with spreadsheets (part of the point of Help me Investigate is to allow people to play to their strengths).

He quickly established the 10 worst places to park for ticketing were:

•Alum Rock Road, Washwood Heath (3,995)
•Stratford Road, Sparkhill (2,418)
•Corporation Street, city centre (1,748)
•Alcester Road, Moseley (1,545)
•Waterloo Street, city centre (1,455)
•High Street, Harborne (1,391)
•Gas Street, city centre (1,083)
•Whittall Street, city centre (1,022)
•St Paul’s square, Jewellery Quarter (1,008)
•Dean Street, city centre (978)

Neil normally blogs about food, so even though he wanted to right about this he didn’t want to contaminate his normal blog.  He borrowed some space on Be Vocal to write this piece, including the observation that:

it’s surprising to see that the warden BM739, issued 5,080 tickets.  The next ‘top’ ticketer issued 3,559.  This shocked me, as that’s a LOT of extra tickets by BM739.

Tom Scotney at the Birmingham Post started to use his papers position to seek explanations for the figures from the council, and this morning he posted the article including explanations for these questions:  1/2) Why is Alum Rock Road the most ticketed area in Birmingham?
3) Why did the number of tickets given out rise significantly over the last full recorded year?

So what do I make of this?

  • Thanks to the Birmingham Post for running the story and more importantly sharing credit for the story. It’s important for news organisations to get used to being open and generous with sources.
  • It’s good to see citizens and journalists (who are also citizens, I know) collaborating with each other to get to the bottom of something
  • This one set of data has already triggered new questions about car clamping and could lead to a  flurry of similar questions across the country.

The other thing to remember though is that this may not be typical of what happens on Help Me Investigate. This is a question which has general interest, hence useful for a mainstream news organisation.  Many of the questions though may be, on the face of it,  more mundane and more about how thre system works or perhas problems that are very very local.

For these the collaboration could involve public servants using the questions as a means to improve the work they do.  At least let’s hope so.

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