Data mapping – more than pretty pictures

In November [2010] the Telegraph website ran the following:  Universities spending millions on websites which students rate as inadequate.

The intro  says it all:

Universities are spending millions on redesigns and maintenance of websites which students say are inadequate and lack basic services, the Telegraph can disclose.’

The report relies heavily on a comparison of data from responses of universities to FOI requests. Data returned was put into a spreadsheet and this was  followed by output into a neat data visualization. All standard stuff.

Pretty Maps

The interactive map is pretty cool and worth checking out.  I discovered that Bournemouth University spends £3.32 per student on its website – now, that’s a little fact to use down the pub. But look at Exeter  –  according to the Telegraph it spends £23.38 per student. Is that a lot? The Telegraph seems to think so…

Is it now time to be outraged by how much universities spend on their websites, at a time when tuition fees are rising? Or do we accept that a well-maintained university websites is pretty essential in the modern, market-driven, world of HE?

The villain in this story is University of Hertfordshire. It spent ‘£278,094 on a redesign by Precedent Communications and Straker UK, completed in May 2008” and is the  most expensive university website.

Other ‘expensive’ sites include those from:  Exeter University, Cranfield and  Robert Gordon.

All these universities were contacted to explain themselves. In fact, alarm bells should have been ringing at the Telegraph newsroom because all the explanations seem perfectly reasonable and some raised questions about the validity of the comparisons that were made.

University accounting structures differ a lot.  In some cases, website work is highly centralised (in other cases, costs are dispersed through different faculties and schools), some figures include staffing costs (s0me don’t), some figures include cost of hardware (some don’t) etc.

Data from the Telegraph appears to suggest all the money quoted is spent on public-facing sites, but most universities also have internal intranets for staff and VLEs for students. I’m not saying this data is wrong, but I wouldn’t want to be the journalist to check all of this on deadline day.

Apple+ Apple + Banana + Apple + Pear + Apple = ?

The Telegraph does its bit for journalistic transparency by publishing the full spreadsheet of data. But there is a warning here. I love reading a good ‘top ten’ in a newspaper.  It’s great to produce a table of data that ‘proves’ a political point – in this case that the public sector spends too much on web white elephants. But journalists must ensure they are comparing like with like.  And guess what? Sometimes this is impossible and you have to kill a story.

It’s fine to send out hundreds of FOI requests to public sector institutions (that’s the easy bit).  But the figures you get back need careful handling, cleaning and authenticating or else they risk becoming HIGHLY  misleading.  Ensuring that you are comparing ‘apples with apples’ is not easy. You don’t want any phallic-shaped bananas getting stuck in Excel.

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