Mug showing data

So, what have you learnt? Tips for wannabe MA Interactive journos

Deadline season is drawing to a close, birds are singing, the weather is heating up (sort of)… This seems as good a time as any to pause, breathe and look back at my time at City.

TL;DR: Plan better, don’t procrastinate, try and learn statistics.

That first day back in September seems like absolute ages ago. The year goes quickly – very, very quickly. So with that in mind, I thought I’d offer what (admittedly not very expert) advice I have to any aspiring journos looking to join the course.

Plan, plan, plan

I was an arts undergraduate. This in no way prepared me for the level of planning, organisation and scheduling that is integral to doing well on a journalism masters course. You’ll get the first few assignments, think – oh, a couple of months, that’s ages. It’s not. The deadlines will just keep piling up, and you’ll hopefully be trying to juggle work experience placements too.

You’ll probably need to arrange interviews for your assignments (this takes a lot longer than writing up the piece does), send off FOI (Freedom of Information) requests, go to relevant events… this will All. Take. Time.

Get your hustle on, and start thinking about assignments the day you get them.

Read your media law textbook before the course start

Related. Media Law will be one of those modules that are absolutely central to your journalism training (you don’t want to get sued), but a pain to learn at the time.

The exams may consist of a lot multiple choice questions, but don’t be fooled – you will need to know cases, specific Acts, names of the Chief Attorney General etc. etc. It’s a lot to take in, and once term starts, it doesn’t leave much time for reading.

Rumour has it that one of my coursemates (anon.) read the entire media law textbook the summer before the course started. I really wish I had too.


Get numerate

I do the MA Interactive Journalism course, which involves a data journalism module. It’s great, and you get to learn cool things like data scraping and how to make online maps and stuff.

But something I really wished I’d done before the course was to get at least a basic grasp of statistics, and excel functions. You don’t need an expert level of knowledge or to be a numbers whizz – but look up a couple of ‘introduction to statistics’ guides online. Or if you can’t be bothered, read my coursemate’s excellent guide on our course website, Interhacktives. It’s very good.

And finally…

Enjoy it!

Over the year I’ve found myself in places talking to people I never would have thought of – from attending a Pegida rally in Newcastle and live-tweeting it, running around central London live-blogging busking sessions, talking to data scientists, pensioners, healthcare professionals… the list is endless and never predictable.

Embrace the madness, and enjoy it all.

Excel spreadsheet of candidates and their constituencies

How to scrape with OutwitHub

Data scraping is one of those data journalism phrases that I encountered and thought – yep, never going to be able to do that. But it sounds a lot more scary than it is.

In this how-to guide I’ll run through how to do a really simple scrape using the free version of Outwit Hub.


In honour of 420 (unofficial national marijuana day in America), I wrote a piece about GE 2015 candidates from the Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol (CISTA) Party in order to practise/refresh my scraping skills.

I will be walking you through the scraping process I went through to get the following data from the CISTA website:

a) Candidate name

b) Candidate constituency

I then mapped the candidates according to where they were standing for election, using mapping tool CartoDB.

What does Outwit Hub do?

At its most basic, Outwit Hub retrieves text from between two ‘markers’ defined by you, the user. It delves into the source code of a web-page and recovers the data you want.

Step 1: Download OutWit Hub
The free version limits you to scraping 100 rows of data, but that should definitely be more than enough.

Step 2: Open up OutWit Hub, copy and paste the CISTA candidate web page into the URL bar at the top of the application. This will also show the source code of that particular web page.

Step 3: Click on scrapers, create new scraper

Step 4: For the first line, under the ‘Description’ column, put ‘Candidate name’. This line will be where we’ll pull out the candidate name.

Step 5: Go to ‘marker before’, and put in: <div class=”col-md-3″>

Step 6: Go to ‘marker after’, and put in: </h3>

Step 7: For the second line, under the ‘Description column, put ‘Constituency’. This will be where we’ll pull out the candidate’s constituency that they’re standing in.

Step 8: Go to ‘marker before’, and put in: </a>

Step 9: Go to ‘marker after’, and put in: </p>

A photo probably illustrates the process better than me just writing about it. So — your screen should now look something like this:

OutWit Hub showing before and after markers

Step 10: Click ‘execute’

Congratulations! You have successfully scraped using OutWit Hub.

OutWit Hub showing what final scrape should look like

I still find it a bit touch and go in terms of deciding exactly which bits of source code to use as markers. In this case, you can see that the scraper pulled out one result (the top one) that also fit into the before and after markers we specified – it’s not an exact science, but you can delete outliers.

You can now export your results (click ‘Export’).

Excel spreadsheet of candidates and their constituencies

Cannabis Rally in Lincoln, NE (11)

Would you vote to legalise cannabis?

CISTA (Cannabis is safer than alcohol) is a new political party campaigning for drug reform in the UK, starting with cannabis.

It argues that the UK’s “war on drugs” has failed, and points to the increasing number of states in the US which have legalised cannabis as examples of how a more progressive drugs policy can have tangible benefits.

4/20 (the date when marijuana-smokers in the United States traditionally gather together and smoke up) may have been and gone last week.

But for those bemoaning the fact that cannabis is still an illegal drug in the United Kingdom, fear not – you may be one of the lucky ones who happens to live in one of the 32 constituencies in which pro-legalisation political party CISTA is fielding candidates.

MAPPED: Are CISTA fielding a candidate in your constituency?

The party will be fielding candidates in 32 UK constituencies.

But how many people actually support cannabis legalisation?

In their online manifesto, CISTA claims that “84% of the UK population now concede that this so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has failed and cannot be won”. But does acknowledging a failure of policy automatically translate into direct support for drugs legalisation?

According to YouGov, the majority of British adults still don’t think that marijuana should be legalised in the UK, with 32% of respondents saying that it should be legalised compared to 49% against. In fact, Britain lags behind Germany and the United States, both of which have higher percentages of the population coming out in favour of legalisation.

Residents in Scotland are the most pro-legalisation (with 39% in favour of legalising marijuana), followed by those living in London (35% in favour). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the younger you are the more pro-legalisation you are likely to be, with 48% of 18-24 year olds in favour of legalising marijuana, compared to just 20% of those over 60.

Support for legalisation of marijuana

Featured image – Flickr: Jonathan Reyes

Article updated to include cartoDB map and graph 27/04/15

math problem

Puzzling over Cheryl’s birthday

I am a Singaporean and I have a confession – it took me a whole day to work out when Cheryl’s birthday was.

The Cheryl in question is, of course, the subject of the maths puzzle-turned-web sensation that has been stumping social media’s brightest and best over the past week.

First posted on Facebook by Singaporean television host Kenneth Kong, the puzzle was part of the Singapore and Asian Schools Maths Olympiad 2014, and was aimed at 15 and 16-year-olds. It has spawned numerous articles, a dedicated Wikipedia page, and even a (slightly bizarre) “math arpeggio” song which claims to depict the puzzle’s solution via the keys of an electronic piano (honestly).

Briefly, the puzzle features infuriating host Cheryl who refuses to specify when her birthday is, but instead tells friend Albert the month of her birthday and second friend Bernard (only) the day of the month, and gives them ten possible dates to choose from.

Trying to figure out Cheryl’s birthday was maddening. Not only is she incredibly vague to poor Albert and Bernard, but it was doubly goading because, like the dozens of teens that took part in Olympiad 2014, I too used to be a proud maths olympian back in the day.

Granted, this was only at primary school level, and most of the children in my class took part. Nobody really enjoyed them, and they faded into distant memories when I moved to England and started (wonderfully Olympiad-free) secondary school. But Cheryl and her infuriating birthday date has triggered a tiny, nagging worry that my maths prowess peaked at primary school and has been in steady decline ever since.

[Spoiler Alert] How the BBC solved it:

When I was at Singaporean primary school, maths puzzles such as this were like parody answers to a viral logic puzzle – ubiquitous. They followed very similar formats, all the way down to the imaginative trope of naming the characters in each problem according to the alphabet (Albert, Bernard, Cheryl – spot the pattern?). If there were four characters, their names were drawn from each of the four major ethnic groups that broadly make up Singapore (lChinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian). All pretty formulaic for learning tools meant to stimulate creative problem-solving.

 It’s all Maths to me

“Singapore Maths” has acquired almost brand-like status in the United Kingdom, with tiger mothers rushing to find the best tuition centres and commenting online about which primary schools best incorporate it into their teaching methods. It has been lauded by educators for emphasising problem-solving skills and a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts from an early age, and was given the Gove stamp of approval in his changes to the British curriculum back when he was Education Secretary.

Of course, all these super-skills and accolades were completely lost on me and my fellow schoolmates puzzling over the daily slog of primary school classes. Maths involved a lot of puzzle-solving, but most memorably it also involved a lot of “model-making”. The idea is that instead of being faced with rows of symbols and numbers, it is a lot easier to grasp a mathematical concept by drawing out shapes (‘bars’) and visualising the maths problem that way. Students are meant to start off with concrete objects, drawing out the problem, before eventually progressing to solving problems in the abstract (i.e. with only numbers).

example of a bar model problem

Flickr: Roland O’Daniel


Logic puzzles and learning by model sound fun – but having to solve worksheets of ‘Cheryl’s birthday’ type puzzles every day is never going to be any child’s go-to activity of choice. Lots of friends actively hated it (one of them, upon hearing about this piece, immediately recalled her hatred of problem-based questions and that she sometimes used to cry when she got given a practise exam paper to do – “thank god I’m done with primary school maths classes!”).

Even Singapore’s parents, it seems, are finding the primary school maths curriculum tough going. Earlier this year it was reported by MyPaper that adults are now going for maths tuition “so that they can better understand what their children have to deal with in school”.

No wonder then that Cheryl’s birthday puzzle has intrigued so many people. It combines game-playing with a clever mix of emotional awe and frustration – “amazing, it’s meant for kids/it’s meant for kids, why can’t I do it?!”

For a smaller subsection of the web though, it also provoked incredulity that a brain-bending maths puzzle of the type that we thought we’d left behind at school could now be a crazy viral phenomenon. Problems like Cheryl’s birthday were par for the course when I was at school. Maybe it’s time for a new trend.

The latest new puzzle doing the rounds is the BBC Today’s programme’s one about prisoners and coloured hats. The primary school child in me is rolling her eyes; the other half of me is itching to waste another day having a crack at it.

"Mellieha Bay beach Malta 1" by Karelj - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Budget 2015: Why are we spending so much on overseas winter fuel allowance?

On Wednesday, Chancellor George Osborne presented his Budget to parliament.

While new policies like the increase in the personal tax allowance (or setting aside £1m to commemorate the Battle of Agincourt) grabbed the headlines, it was a one-liner on page 71 that caught my attention – ‘Winter Fuel Payments: overseas eligibility’.

Screenshot Budget 2015 showing savings in winter fuel allowance

This came under the category of ‘Measures announced at Autumn Statement 2013’, i.e. to be implemented in the 2015 Budget. It lays out the amount of money which will go back to the government through the cutting of overseas winter fuel payment – a projected total of +£85m from fiscal years 2015/2016 to 2019/2020, according to the Budget.

All well and good – but this begs the question: How much were we actually spending on overseas winter fuel payment in the first place?

It’s (not?) always sunny in the south of Europe

Turns out, it’s not so much the total amount spent that is so surprising, but the European Economic Area (EEA) countries – and Switzerland – in which it is spent. Pensioners who live overseas could qualify for winter fuel allowance payments irregardless, as it turns out, of how hot or cold their chosen country actually was…

For the fiscal year 2013/14, a total of £21,736,000 was spent on overseas winter fuel payments to British pensioners living in the EEA and Switzerland.

Overseas Winter Fuel Payments - fiscal year 2013/14
Get the data: Winter Fuel Payment statistics (

Of this total, Spain topped the chart, with over £8million spent in the year. Fair enough you might say, some parts of Spain maybe can get quite cold in Winter.

However fourth-highest on the list is the freezing country of… Cyprus. In the fiscal year 2013/14, over £1million (£1,432,000 to be exact) was spent keeping British pensioners warm.

Cyprus does not get that cold. In the winter months, an average temperature ranges from a freezing 12ºC to 14ºC. To put this in perspective, this is like summer in most parts of the United Kingdom.

Other countries not exactly famous for their freezing winters include Malta (average winter temperatures of between 10ºC – 15ºC), Greece and Portugal.

If you’re looking for areas of spending to save on, overseas winter fuel allowance is probably as good a place as any to start. After all, we could have commemorated the Battle of Agincourt 21 times over if it had been cut a year earlier.

Image from Hong Kong protest in London

Hong Kong protest – the Umbrella Revolution hits London

Demonstrators gathered outside the Chinese embassy in London last evening [1 Oct 2014] in a show of solidarity for their counterparts protesting in Hong Kong.

An estimated 3,000 people turned up on the night, organisers say.

Hong Kong protesters have quickly become famous for their politeness, and the London event stayed true to form. Protesters obediently confined themselves to the pavement across the road from the embassy, and even cheered the Met. officers when they blocked off the road to traffic. When we arrived for the event we were firmly told by stewards to move a bit further forward, so that they could keep a clear thoroughfare on the pavement for pedestrians.

Daniel Chan, a Hong Kong student studying at the University of Warwick, was one of the speakers who addressed the crowd. He ended his speech by thanking his mum and dad, and promising to work hard. So far, so Hong Kong.

Many protesters were clearly worried about what they saw as parallels to the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, when similar movements for democracy in Beijing were suppressed in brutal fashion by the Chinese government.

American journalist Dr Jonathan Mirsky, who was one of several speakers addressing the protest, is one who is particularly concerned. He was at Tiananmen in 1989, and got his arm broken by PLA soldiers. Speaking to us after his speech, he told us that he saw “complete parallels” between the situations of 1989 and the Hong Kong protests happening now. Like 1989, the movement is largely student-driven.

“You have to feel young to do it.”

The Chinese embassy across the road looks all but deserted, save for one solitary window lit-up in the corner on the top floor. Does Mirsky think the embassy is watching?

“Oh yeah, they’re definitely watching.”

Image from Hong Kong protest in London

The crowd mostly consisted of young Hong Kong students studying in the UK. Rachel Chan, a 22-year-old Psychology student, came down from Sheffield University for the day.

“I want real democracy in Hong Kong, I don’t want Hong Kong to be ruled.

“We want to protect our students in Hong Kong. They’re unarmed and police shouldn’t treat them like this.”

The overwhelming feeling was one of showing friends and family back home in Hong Kong that they are not alone.

30-year-old Jessie Kwok, who works in finance, has lived in London for 13 years. Her family and friends are actively protesting back in Hong Kong. She sees these protests as a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity.

“Our voice will never be heard if we don’t do something now. I just don’t want it to end up like 1989.

“Chances like this only come round once every 25 years.”

Originally published (by me) on Medium [2 Oct 2014].

11 accounts you should follow for Archway news

This is the little patch of London that I’ll be reporting on this year.

Archway technically isn’t an actual ward in Islington, but a lot of the neighbourhood is in Junction Ward, and it’s way easier to distinguish as a specific term (type ‘Junction’ into twitter and you will get inundated with a whole load of irrelevant tweets).

Here is a shortlist of 11 twitter accounts to follow to stay up to date with the latest news.

I have also done a more comprehensive list. It’s still a work-in-progress – I’ll hopefully be adding to it as my knowledge of the area increases!

1. @archwaylondon

Official twitter account of the Archway Town Centre Group (ATCG), an independent body representing business interests in Archway. They have a great website as well, and tweet about upcoming events.

2. @WhitHealth

The main healthcare provider in the area, Whittington Health runs the main hospital in the area.

3. @dwhcoalition

Following on from WhitHealth – this is the twitter account for the DWH Coalition (Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition). Run by the incredibly formidable Shirley Franklin, they campaign tirelessly to prevent what they see is the slow privatisation of the hospital.

4. @N19Archway

Retweets locals in the area, great forum for accessing hard-to-find on the ground opinions.

5. @TheNorthernista

Archway local who tweets enthusiastically and frequently.

6. @JanetBurgess1

So 6, 7 and 8 sort of follow on the same lines – they’re the respective twitter accounts of the Junction Ward councillors.

7. @KayaJunction

8. @tim_nicholls

9. @betterarchway

Twitter account for Better Archway Forum, a community group which works to improve the area.

10. @tomfoot1

Journalist for the Islington Tribune, Camden New Journal and West End Extra.

11. @IslingtonBC

And finally – the Islington Council twitter account.