Data journalism and the 2015 UK General Election


Dr Paul Bradshaw

Visiting Professor at City University, London, and Associate Professor and course leader, MA Online Journalism, Birmingham City University.


Section 5: Campaigning and Civil Society

Unlike the US – where Nate Silver became a poster boy of data journalism during the last election – the genre has had minimal impact on UK election coverage. Instead, it could be argued that the biggest impact has come from outside journalism: the ‘civic tech’ movement of MySociety, Tweetminster and Democracy Club.

Although MySociety tools were used by Channel 4 as early as the 2005 election in 2015 dozens of Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) have had a significant presence inside and outside of news coverage across the board. Matthew Smith, creator of the VAA Fantasy Frontbench, believes the 2015 election campaign has been “the first where Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) have reached a level of maturity where their use can no longer be said to be insignificant.”

So was this the data journalism election? No. Instead the emphasis has been largely on social and mobile. In that sense, it has been the ‘social media election’. Perhaps next time, with the coders firmly in place, we will truly see the first data-driven election.

Many of the tools built by users of Democracy Club – a mailing list for civic coders – have built the foundations that journalists and publishers then used in their coverage, including formal partnerships between VoteMatch and Verto with the TelegraphHuffington Post and Independent.

Trinity Mirror’s ‘Find My Seat’ widget, for example, allowed readers of their regional titles to find out their local candidates and swing needed to change MP – but also facts on the local economy, cost of living, immigration, health and pensions.

Data journalism has also proved an irresistible method for explaining the complexities of coalition-building to audiences: the BBC, Guardian, FT and Sky all created interactives or calculators for users to ‘build their own majority’.

Social media itself has been a key source of data in a number of news organisations: The Mirror’s Tweetometer showed the top performing tweets from politicians’ accounts, Sky’s ‘Social Election’ tracker monitored a range of metrics, and the ‘Twitter Worm’ was used by the Sun, LBC, ITV, BBC and others. All of these raise concerns about how representative Twitter users are of the wider population, how accurate sentiment analysis is, and how well news organisations are communicating these issues to users.

In 2010 the only branded factchecking operation was Channel 4’s FactCheck but in 2015 it was joined by the Guardian’s Reality Check and the BBC’s identically-named project. Notably this was integrated into the corporation’s live online coverage of the leaders’ debates and Question Time. Elsewhere the Media Standards Trust’s Election Unspun, and FullFact played key roles.

Trinity Mirror’s establishing of a central data unit in 2013 has been pivotal, providing the resources to create innovative data driven coverage at a local level such as the My Manifesto project and data-driven reporting on key claimsgender representationcampaign spendingThe Guardians hiring of Alberto Nardelli from Tweetminster to run its data team was a significant move and has contributed to particularly sophisticated (both editorially and technically) election coverage from the newspaper. And in the broadcasting sector a combined data and visual unit has helped to position BBC as a leader when it comes to interactive election coverage.

Elsewhere the influence of Nate Silver on political and financial publishers such as the New Statesman, Economist and FT has been striking, with many shifting to a more informed analysis rooted in data, alongside tools that are useful to its audiences.