August 3, 2011
Hi folks — some sad news today: over the next few weeks, we’ll be shuttering Schooloscope, and wrapping up our journey into UK schools.
A bit of background…
As I imagine you know, the creation of Schooloscope was funded by 4iP (the venture arm of Channel 4, one of the UK’s main broadcasters), although the design and development was handed entirely by BERG. We took as our mission to talk about schools by demystifying UK government data. All those exam league tables and school inspection reports… what do they mean? Schooloscope was created to provide a way in to this often arcane data, to build engagement around the education of pupils among everyone involved.
So we developed a site with friendly icons, simple language, and big maps – all based on the complex and hard-to-deal-with data underneath (from a multitude of sources) – and began publishing for all state-run primary and secondary schools in England.
We added comparisons, a special measurement of “pupil happiness” (based on several bits of data from the official reports) to offset the traditional focus on exams, integration with Facebook and Twitter, and even cut-out-and-keep model paper schools.
It’s been a ton of fun to build and run! The feedback has broadly been tremendous — we’ve met people who have found Schooloscope useful in moving house, getting to know a neighbourhood, having a first glimpse at a school, or generally starting to understand UK education. The conversations it has triggered have been brilliant, really moving away from the competitive exam model, and more towards what we should value in schools. There have been difficult conversations to: we’ve had bugs to fix, and we’ve continually developed our measures of “judgement” and “happiness” to reflect what we and site users feel is fair.
But all good things have to come to an end.
The story today
Keeping the site up-to-date takes a lot of work because there’s always new data, and also because the intricacy in the information is always changing. For example, can you compare the official average exam “point score” in core subjects year on year? Yes, sometimes, but no other times (the official calculation changes). We have to know that. Or there’s a new type of school that starts. Or that we find a bug! There’s always customer service to do too.
Schooloscope has been a huge success in terms of showing a need for this kind of approach. But as our funding came to a conclusion, we found that building the team needed to maintain the site would also mean transforming it into a different kind of beast. It needs skills we don’t focus on at BERG — if BERG was a different shaped company, I’m sure Schooloscope would be a great fit. So we looked at long term partnerships and ways to help the site become self-sustaining, but ultimately none of these came through.
And that brings us to a more serious problem:
When it comes down to it, Schooloscope is a publisher. Although the majority of our feedback has been good, some of it points out flaws. While we were under heavier development, this was really useful because we could make improvements responsively.
But if we’re not able to be as responsive, then what Schooloscope would actually be doing is publishing information we can’t stand behind 100%. And we don’t want that!
So we ran an internal review to figure out whether we could keep the site up-to-date and as responsive as you – its users – deserve, just running it as a hobby. And I’m really sad to report that we can’t.
Shutters down it is. We’ll be taking Schooloscope down in the next 4-6 weeks.
This is hugely disappointing for the team, because we believe deeply in making government information friendlier and more approachable, and constructively putting forwards other ways to thing about schools. A focus on pupil happiness and gentle education about data would, we believe, result in greater engagement of parents and caregivers in their schools and children’s educations.
I hope it isn’t the end of the story for the spirit of Schooloscope. I would love to see these other viewpoints re-emerge in other projects. And I believe deeply in the power of friendly automatic journalism – across massive sets of data – to humanise and make visible the often impenetrable machinery of the state… especially to audiences who would more normally never encounter the spreadsheets and tables on which Schooloscope was based.
It just remains for me to thank the team – our friends at 4iP, our collaborators and folks we’ve met along the way, everyone at BERG, and especially Kari, Tom Armitage and Matt Brown (Tom and Matt have since moved on) – because I believe it’s a wonderful site, something nuanced and special – and thank you all for being with us on this journey.