Concrete Collar speaks to… Birmingham By Numbers

Concrete Collar recently spoke to Sandro Sorrentino, founder/editor of Birmingham By Numbers (@Brumbynumbers), about his project, his passion for data journalism and his hopes for the future…

What is Birmingham By Numbers?

It’s a local news website that focuses on data stories. We still produce normal articles that you would expect, but all our stories use official data from public bodies as the source.

What’s your journalistic background?

I’ve been involved in the journalism industry for 7 years now. I originally started out with some small-scale school projects, and then I moved onto my first major project- an award-winning technology website called The Nerd Pad- which I ran from 2011 until just last year. Since then, I’ve decided to focus more on data journalism.

What led to the creation of Birmingham By Numbers?

Well, there’s a serious lack of data-specific journalism in the UK… you know we’re the only data-specific website in the UK…

Serious?

Yeah, we are [he’s either right or his competitors need to sort out their SEO- Ed.]. Also, I do think that the public need to be more aware of the city around them, and of course there’s the selfish reasons of wanting to get my work published and having something to do over summer.

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Where did your love affair with data journalism start?

Well, I had to do it for a module I was studying in Journalism at university! I genuinely got really into it, and from that, I just started reading around the subject… I then threw myself into writing some data pieces for Birmingham Eastside. At first, I’ll be honest, they were shit, but it was a case of repeating and improving based on feedback and new skills. I soon learnt about FOI (Freedom of Information) requests, which is a big part of data journalism, and something that I really enjoy doing.

What do you enjoy about Freedom of Information requests?

I don’t know… I just find them an exciting way to get original stories and I personally think the stories are more interesting.

Funny you should say that, because, from my personal experience, I always found them to be so frustrating… you know, you’d put one in, wait for weeks and then it’d be the wrong data so you’d have to wait again while they gave you the right stuff…

Yeah I know they can be, but when you do them a lot, you kind of know what to say, so you don’t get rejected!

But these public bodies must get frustrated with, say, 17 messages in their inbox from Sandro Sorrentino wanting all this data that they probably can’t be arsed to track down…

I’ll be honest, I’ve had arguments with organisations about submitting numerous FOI requests, but it’s my right, isn’t it? And anyway, it always depends what the data is! When its data that shows good things, like for example, speeding fines going down, it’s normally really easy to get, but when you want stuff that shows them in a negative light, like high rates of unsolved crime on Hurst Street, it can be an absolute nightmare to get hold of!

And you also must go through the pleasure of dealing with the West Midlands Police press office as well…

They’re terrible! I’ll be honest, they usually never get back to you, but once you work on them and get the contacts inside who know what they’re doing, it’s fine!

Honestly, being on hold to them for an hour at a time just to be told to ring someone else nearly put me off journalism entirely! Anyway, why are you so passionate about data journalism?

Honestly, because I’m good at it! Within the journalism industry, which I always wanted to get into, respected people have started to recognise me as a data journalist and as such, it inspires me to progress. I’ve found as well that, if you can do it with data, theres money to be had! You know what the media landscape is like at the moment…

Yeah it’s not great at the moment!

Yeah, well data journalism is one of the few areas that’s growing, and I feel that if you specialise in something, it allows you to get further… Anyone can write a story, but not everyone can find a serious discrepancy in a 13000-row spreadsheet, for example.

What story are you most proud of?

I don’t really have one; they’re all great in their own way. Some are more original, some are shocking and some are just fun to write.

But say if I put a gun to your head…

There’s one that I’m currently working on about traffic cops, and I’ve gone into way more depth than usual, which is why it’s taken so long to do! Hopefully, I’ll be live-blogging a night on the road with them, which I’m really excited about.

What particular topics would you say you’re most passionate about?

I would say politics for sure. The good thing about data journalism is that it’s all there right in front of you… you can call them out on their bullshit in a way that I don’t think that you can with other forms of journalism, and obviously, politics affects us all, so if they’re lying to you, you’re probably going to feel the affects somewhere along the line… it’s definitely the most rewarding area in my eyes.

Finally, where do you see the site in 12 months?

Who knows? The website didn’t even exist 6 months ago, but now we’ve just been nominated in 5 categories on the Midlands Student Media Awards; more than any other website! I’m going to speak to a few people, like Paul Bradshaw, who taught that module that got me into data journalism, and that’ll help me work out where to go with the site.

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