What does this map of Question Time filming locations tell us about Britain?

Question Time. Just to confuse things, this one was recorded in Shanghai. Image: Getty.

Veteran BBC political presenter David Dimbleby is to stand down after 25 years as host of Question Time. Normally we’d pay no attention to such matters round here – oceans rise, empires fall, our extensive commentary on tube maps will see you through it all – except somebody has made a map and suddenly we got interested.

Question Time, you see, moves: each week it’s hosted in a different city, in an attempt to reflect a range of national opinion. This doesn’t quite work, because people travel to watch the show, and anyway the sort of person who wants to be in the audience of Question Time is extraordinarily unlikely to be representative of the populus at large (and highly likely to be, say, a councillor for a major political party). But nonetheless, the thought is there.

So Rob Grant from the Reach Data Unit has mapped the location of every Question Time recorded since Dimbleby took over in 1994. On this map, the larger the bubble, the more shows recorded there. Here’s the result:

That looks reasonably congruent with the distribution of Britain’s population. London dominates recordings, but that largely reflects its demographic dominance, too: more than a sixth of the British population live in Greater London, so you’d expect it to be bigger than anywhere else.

The next few biggest bubbles are about where you’d expect them to be, too. Birmingham and Manchester vie for the title of second city, so are pretty well-represented on the map; the urban areas of Leeds and Glasgow also contain over 1m each, some are slightly smaller than that.

So far, all that seems to stack up. Here’s the list of every city that’s hosted more than 10 shows, courtesy of a write up in the Birmingham Mail:

  • London: 171
  • Birmingham: 39
  • Manchester: 38
  • Leeds: 28
  • Glasgow: 25
  • Cardiff: 23
  • Southampton: 20
  • Norwich: 20
  • Nottingham: 17
  • Liverpool: 17
  • Belfast: 16
  • Newcastle: 14
  • Edinburgh: 14
  • Bristol: 12

London, whose urban area has a population of around 9m-10m, has hosted around four times as many recordings as Birmingham and Manchester (2-3m), and around six or seven times as many as Leeds and Glasgow (1-1.5m).

Then things get weird.

For a start there are the surprisingly high placements of Cardiff and Belfast. Both are significant cities, with populations of around the 500,000 mark, but neither are huge – both are significantly smaller than, say, Liverpool.

Look at the map, indeed, and it’s clear that they’re standing in for their entire countries. Cardiff has hosted by far the largest proportion of Welsh episodes of Question Time. Belfast seems to have hosted literally every North Irish one. You can see the logic there, but one wonders how representative the results actually were.

At least those are national capitals though: even stranger are the placements of Southampton and Norwich. You can, if you squint, argue that Southampton is the heart of a wider south coast area, stretching from Portsmouth to Poole – bu t since those other places, plus Bournemouth and Winchester, seem to be hosting their own shows that feels like a rubbish excuse.

Norwich doesn’t even have that. Question Time thinks it’s the 8th most important place in Britain. You know how many people live in Norwich? Four.

Okay, it’s about a quarter of a million, but it’s still fewer than, say, Coventry, Doncaster, or Wigan – and even the wider East Anglian region is pretty sparsely populated. It’s tempting to conclude that Joseph Dancey is right about this:

One last oddity about this map is something that isn’t there. Sheffield barely features: it’s a tiny circle, overshadowed by neighbouring Manchester, Nottingham and Leeds. It’s also - I’m not saying there’s a causal relationship here, because there obviously isn’t, but it feels worth noting – Britain’s poorest major city.

Anyway. If anyone at the BBC is interested in a reboot of Question Time which suddenly gets really interested in trains, you know where I am.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.