Shutters Down

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

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.

Thank you

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.

Thanks!

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12 Responses to “Shutters Down”


  1. Schooloscope is a wonderful example of applying data visualization where it really matters. I’ve pointed to this site in the past to suggest Chernoff faces. While I understand you decision to shut down, I would really appreciate it if you wrote a magazine article about the site, so that people don’t have to trawl through the blog posts to find out about it in the future. ACM’s Interactions Magazine comes to mind. (Or maybe even a visualization-focused column in A list apart).

    I’d be happy to explain more about what I mean (i.e. what I’d like to see) if that would help.

  2. Tim Holden Says:

    I’ll be sad to see the site go, but having read your post I think you’re making the right decision for the right reasons. Thanks for creating something wonderful. The web needs more projects this ‘nuanced and special’.

  3. Lee Phillipson Says:

    I find schoolscope to be a fantastic resource, very helpful for my family when choosing a new home in an unfamiliar area. It is such a shame that it can not continue, thanks to your team for the work and time to create and maintain the site.


  4. This saddens me greatly, as it was such an awesome tool for a new parent such as myself who has moved to a new area and doesn’t know the schools well as I didn’t grow up in the place that I now live.

    Have you approached anyone at Alphagov about taking it on?

  5. Ben Says:

    How would I go about taking over the website?

  6. TriforceOfNope Says:

    aw man this is a terrible news, I am truly shocked ! 😥

    I just learned about it, how powerful/wonderful/useful it was, and now I read no one came to pick it up !

    Not even the gov, despite the obvious excellent public service it would be (transforming a giant pile of papers into useful information), damn it, at least you showed everyone it could be done – will you write some advises for anyone wishing to make a similar project ? nothing would be lost that way 🙂

    How I ended up here (despite being french and not a parent) :

    first the RPS Sunday Papers
    => http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/08/07/the-sunday-papers-181/#more-68691

    which leaded me to
    => http://berglondon.com/blog/2011/08/03/the-robot-readable-world/

    => then to
    http://interconnected.org/home/2011/01/28/furby_and_the_fourth_kingdom

    => then back on berglondon (loop !)
    http://berglondon.com/blog/2009/11/23/chernoff-schools/

    (and now I have 16 pages, each with at least 2 to 3 pages of extremely-interesting text… damn you Internet ! damn you multiple hyper-linking ! When am I supposed to play video games ?! :P)

  7. Paul Codd Says:

    Could it be set free, let loose as it were as an open source project? Perhaps you guys might have enough spare capacity to stay involved in a management capacity, or just providing leadership or advice – or turn it over to the unwashed masses to do their own mashups? That way it could maybe even expand and eventually handle data from other countries!


  8. Your site was an inspiration. I’m really sad to read this. I think you’re right that it was a success as a demonstration project for the need for better school data communication. Do you have more information proving the success? I’d love to talk offline about user response/traffic data/etc.

  9. Katy Says:

    Hi, We’re a small, open data-focused development firm, and we’d love to keep the service alive. We’ve recently taken on the running of PublicWhip to prevent its closure and would be happy to do the same, or similar, for Schooloscope.

    Kindest regards
    Katy @ Raraunga

  10. Matt W Says:

    Thanks for your kind words and offers of help, all!

    Schooloscope was commercially funded, so my focus right now is to find a commercial future for the site — either by sponsorship or acquisition. It’s important that I look after the interests of investors, in order to encourage more speculative investment in public service websites in the future. I’m going to give those routes best efforts before looking at other options.

    Ben, Katy — thanks both for the interest! Could you drop me a line by email with thoughts on how this could work? Like, if I secured sponsorship, would you look after things day-to-day… or otherwise? My details are here: http://berglondon.com/studio/matt-webb/

    Matt

  11. Mr Headteacher Says:

    Schoolscope offered sweeping statements, inaccurate judgements and over-simplified information about schools. Many schools were concerned about the misleading information, and the ‘pseudo-analysis’ on this site, much of which was counched in negative terms. A waste of money, and as a primary Headteacher myself I’m glad to see the end of this site. If you want to find out about a school, go and visit it…talk to the Head, talk with the staff and children, and get a feel for the place.

  12. Matt W Says:

    Mr Headteacher, thanks for your feedback. I’m extremely sorry to hear your concerns, and can only reiterate what I’ve said previously. This is a visualisation of data collated from a variety of official sources, including – but not limited – to Ofsted.

    You are absolutely correct, to get the best possible feel for a school, visit it, engage with the staff and children. The intention of Schooloscope has never been to replace face to face communication, but to begin a conversation.

    We value all the feedback we’ve received from this project, and hopefully your feedback here will help others intending to develop such an idea further.


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