Data journalism project – abandoned vehicles

abandoned vehicle
Copyright Alan Stanton, reproduced under Creative Commons. Link here


For our data journalism course on the Interactive MA, we had to do a story using a non-public dataset. I chose to use the Freedom of Information Act to see how many vehicles have been abandoned on London’s streets in 2012 and 2013.

Here is my story and the data behind it:


Over eight hundred vehicles were removed from London’s roads and scrapped in 2012.

London’s councils identified at least 3735 cars, motorcycles and vans that had been left to rust in 2012. Over one thousand were removed and at least 861 were crushed.

Croydon had 3348 reports of abandoned vehicles and identified 1395 as possibly abandoned last year, the highest in the capital. Newham removed 221 vehicles from its streets last year and sent 169 for scrapping, more than any other borough.

“Changes in the value of scrap, high motoring and maintenance costs, fines for unlicensed and untaxed vehicles are often greater than the value of the vehicle itself, which leads some drivers to abandon them,” said Helen Bingham from Keep Britain Tidy, an environmental charity.

“Abandoned vehicles are a visible blight on neighbourhoods and have a hugely negative impact on a community. They contribute to a fear of crime and, alongside litter, fly-tipping and graffiti, they are signs of community decline,” she said.

Expensive and unwanted?

A Maserati and a Bentley were among the 175 abandoned vehicles reported in Hackney last year. However they almost certainly did not end up on the scrapheap because only two of those 175 vehicles were removed and destroyed.

Among the other expensive makes reported abandoned were at least eight Jaguars. Sixteen different boroughs reported at least one Mercedes Benz left neglected.

Other unusual vehicles reported abandoned were two burger vans in Newham and a boat on Whitchurch Lane, Harrow. One Triumph was reported in Haringey. Triumph model cars stopped being made in 1984. Triumph motorcycles are still made.

Many of the vehicles to be disposed of are crushed at Redcorn, which is a contractor based in Tottenham and Rainham for 28 local authorities.

Thirteen boroughs gave detailed enough data plot where vehicles were abandoned in 2013 on an interactive map.

By Council

Croydon Council said in a statement: “The fact that the number of vehicles removed from Croydon is greater than most other boroughs largely reflects the fact that more people live here than anywhere else in the capital.”

However, Croydon had one report for every 109 residents and one abandoned vehicle for every 262 people, the lowest ratio in the capital out of the boroughs that supplied usable data.

Bromley Council identified 959 abandoned vehicles in 2012, the second highest of the responses.

When asked to explain the figure, Councillor Colin Smith, Bromley’s Executive Councillor for Environment said: “There is no definitive answer to hand, but it probably has something to do with the fact that Bromley has one of the highest car ownerships per capita in London and that Bromley Council is extremely proactive in removing such vehicles.”

It also appears that the public reported far more abandoned vehicles to local authorities in 2012 this year than in 2008, the latest year for which we have comparable data.

Twenty-eight London boroughs received 15,023 reports of discarded vehicles in 2008. In 2012, there were 13,971 reports from just 17 boroughs. It seems very likely that the real total therefore far exceeds the 2008 figure.

A spokesman for Newham Council said: “The number of vehicles is no different to other London boroughs, we have simply prioritised their removal higher than other boroughs.”

“We have an effective enforcement team who are pro-actively working to make our borough a place where people want to live, work and stay,” he added.

Data limitations

We cannot be more specific about which cars were left around London because there is a difference between vehicles that are reported abandoned and those that are identified as abandoned.

When a vehicle is reported, the council will investigate whether it has genuinely been left to rust. Usually the owner is found and nothing more happens.

Newham Council, for example, told us in a response to a Freedom of Information request that 966 abandoned vehicles had been reported between January and August 2012. It gave details for each of these cars. It also told us that it identified 232 vehicles as abandoned in 2012.

It did not tell us which of the reports turned out to be genuine and which were false or duplicates. It is unlikely, for instance, that the ten Jaguars reported abandoned in Newham were genuinely discarded.

For this report I sent Freedom of Information requests to all 32 London boroughs and the City of London. 29 boroughs and the City of London sent some kind of response. Owni

A screenshot of
A screenshot of

While I was on work experience at in December, I spotted a tweet about the French data journalism site Owni. Heading to the site and looking on the hashtag #ownioupas it was clear that the website was crowdsourcing potential ideas for funding. The website’s editors wanted to know whether a paywall, for example, was a viable model so it asked people whether and how much people would be willing to pay for the data journalism it produced.

The website collaborated with Wikileaks in 2010 to help analyse the Iraq war logs.

I contacted the website and spoke to one of the directors, Frédéric-Alexandre Talec, and asked him about Owni’s future plans. The resulting story was, I believe, a UK exclusive.

Guardian Data: TV chefs’ recipes

A screenshot of some of the visualisations in the celebrity chefs story in the Guardian
A screenshot of some of the visualisations in the celebrity chefs story in the Guardian

During my stint of work experience at Guardian Data the British Medical Journal found that supermarket ready meals are often healthier than the meals in TV chefs’ recipe books. It was covered in the Guardian and elsewhere as a news story. We decided to do a data angle on the story.

The important point about the data we had was the different serving sizes between supermarket ready meals and recipes from Jamie Oliver and the other celebrities. Supermarket ready meals are usually designed for one, whereas the chefs’ recipes are usually for three or four people. We had to divide the servings of salt, sugar, saturated fat and so on by the number of servings if there was more than one serving.

After that, we took the median averages, copied the values only into a new sheet and visualised the data using Google charts.

We found that the saturated fat content, for example, of the celebrity chefs was higher than the supermarket ready meals, which appeared to back up the main news story.

Guardian Data: AR-15 rifles

A screenshot of my AR-15 in the Guardian
A screenshot of the AR-15 story in the Guardian

I realised that I’d never written an explainer for the work I did at the Guardian Datablog in December, so here we go.

The first piece I did for them was to do with the AR-15 rifle. On Friday December 14 2012, Adam Lanza used an AR-15 rifle as he killed his mother, six teachers and twenty children in Newtown. At the Guardian we were interested in this particular weapon and how widely available it was in the United States. The massacre had reopened the perennial debate on US gun control laws and the availability of guns to US citizens. We wanted to know how many there were in the US.

The data we had came from the American Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in PDF hard copy format.

We had to find the data about AR-15 rifles within that data, clean it and input it into a Google spreadsheet. For example, “Smith & Wesson” would sometimes appear as “Smith and Wesson”, which needed to be corrected before we could analyse and visualise it. We also found authoritative sources on exactly what an AR-15 rifle does and its capabilities.

We subtracted the number of exported AR-15s to arrive at the best figure for the rifles inside the United States. We found the overall trend was a decline in the number of AR-15s in the US and that Smith & Wesson made the most rifles that stayed in America.