BBCTransportHack #1 – data for storytelling and better transport services

Thursday 28 June 2018 was a very special day.  It was a full moon, yes. It was also my 40th birthday. But more important than that, 25 transport data specialists including platforms vendors, private and public sector, universities, and the Open Data Institute were welcomed into the academy space at BBC Mailbox in Birmingham to do something that has never been done before.

We spent the day collaborating with the BBC’s specialist visual journalism and data journalism teams, and regional journalists from ITV Central, Stourbridge News and The Yorkshire Post, on secondment to the BBC’s Shared Data Unit to learn data journalism.


  • transport is a priority area of interest for BBC audiences
  • there is limited knowledge on how to access transport data and integrate it into stories
  • collaborative data journalism is a growing practice, across local, regional and national news (such as BBC Local News Partnerships; and Bureau Local)

How did this come about?

The BBC hosted a Data Journalism hackday and conference in December 2017.  A few transport people were there, and we led a transport data session.  We got great feedback from our ideas, even though we were hampered with access to the data.

In January 2018, I met with the BBC Shared Data Unit team, and we explored some of the challenges around collaboration, data and transport.  The concept of a hackday to bring key parties together was born.

January – June 2018, was me gently exploring who would be willing to take part.  There was naturally a lot of reticence, along the lines of:

“I can’t attend without permission of the PR and Comms team, and they’ll never agree to this.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was mixed in with:

“we only want good stories” 

…a tricky sell to any journalist worth their salt who prides themselves on their role to uphold the public good, and hold organisations and individuals to account.


Scaring the monster – evolving a shared understanding

Digging deeper with transport sector colleagues, we came to the realisation that what we actually wanted was to have the chance to collaborate; to share transport challenges with people willing to listen, and to work with us to enable deeper, more nuanced, and informed stories to be created.

As we evolved a shared understanding across different parties, the BBC staff and I built the collaborative programme for the hack day, and what it could deliver.  Then in the week before the event, something remarkable happened; we had people emailing asking us asking to take part. this was word of mouth because there was nowhere online to book, it was invite only.  We were at capacity.

Pupul Chatterjee and I have dreamed about delivering this for several years. It’s a core part of DEFT153, essential to the success of a Data Discovery Centre, as set out in the West Midlands Case Study published in Data Journalism: Past Present and Future.

Data Discovery Centre model

For me it was never about passing a few excel or csv files to journalists.  We’re talking about re-plumbing our data sharing pipework to deliver transport services, and making this accessible to a wide variety of audiences.

Even if we succeed in the replumbing (which is in jeopardy all the time we don’t have a common understanding on what a data platform is!), would the BBC journalists be able to interact with, understand and use the data in API feeds from multiple different sources? I hoped they would, but it was a big ask, or so I thought.

This is what I described success looking like…


Mapping data platforms in the transport sector

Nic Cary and I published the first in a series of articles in Local Transport Today in June 2018, helping identify data sources, and data platforms “Platforms to help manage the transport data explosion

We’ve already started to code this work into the development of this GitHub respository for the BBCTransportHack.

And we’re delighted that Andrew Radford, Principal Infrastructure Deliver Officer at Birmingham City Council, will be chairing the Data Sharing and Platforms session at Digital Transport Exchange on 11th and 12th July 2018.

Anyone who knows Andy knows this will not be a boring session. Seriously, this is going to be one of those life-changing moments in our understanding and use of data platforms.  You need to be there!  Tickets are free, secure yours here.

Back to the BBCTransportHack, what happened?


Platform providers gave introductions to their services:

  • Transport for West Midlands API
  • Real Journey Time bus planner, developed by Tom Forth for Transport for West Midlands
  • Birmingham in Real Time, developed by Alan Dolhasz, Birmingham City University, for Birmingham City Council and Transport for West Midlands

These and more are listed on the BBCTransportHack GitHub Repository here 

Afternoon hack exploring story angles, and general learning about data, journalism and transport.

  • Interactive tool using car park occupancy data, to help users find spaces and choose the best prices
  • Associated stories around car parking, to give deeper insights
  • Air quality and its crossover relationship between transport and health
  • Traffic signals; times of wait and speeds going through
  • Cross-platform sources to give a proxy for journey time
  • adding context to stories overlaying other datasets; employment, crime, health etc


“the candour with which people have spoken is very refreshing”

“I’ve learnt that by aggregating datasets, and taking account of context, we can bring more meaning, relevance and subtlety to stories”

“it’s really refreshing to see collaboration opportunities I’d never have otherwise thought of”

“what looks like a great dataset may turn out not to be…getting to know the limitations of the data is key, and making sure to express this clearly is crucial”

“cross-platform working is a revelation from a journalism perspective”

“very refreshing to see outside of our own bubble. Today has brought us out of our pack, we must do more of this”


Next steps

  • Technical support for Transport for West Midlands API and Birmingham in Real Time will visit the BBC Shared Data Unit on a regular basis to provide support and assistance
  • Tom forth to build Real Time Journey Planner for Leeds, and collaborate with Yorkshire Post
  • We’re running a slack channel to continue and build our learning
  • BBC Shared Data Unit to be present at Digital Transport Exchange on 11 and 12 July 2018 at iCentrum Birmingham. Secure your free ticket here
  • Do more of these in the future
  • ? to be decided 😉