Alison Holt and John Walton of the BBC used data journalism to build a Care Calculator for the BBC’s Web site using publicly available data. The Care Calculator was designed to help the public understand a new government policy about funding social care in the United Kingdom.

Working with a team of three journalists, a data analyst, a Web designer, and a Web developer, the project was an attempt to model the government’s policy. It took one year to build.

“We wanted to boil down all the information and numbers and present it to the audience in a way that wouldn’t terrify them,” Walton told delegates at INMA’s Big Data for Media conference at Google London on Friday.

“We needed to make sure that when we had finished, people could understand it and use it,” he said.

Through extensive user testing and re-testing, the team identified two key groups of people who would be using the Care Calculator: those older than 65 and their grandchildren, or children, looking at the calculator on their behalf.

When it was launched, the Care Calculator had one million unique browsers, with 400,000 using the Care Calculator.

Here’s how it works: Users input their postal code into the calculator on the BBC’s Web site and are given an estimated cost of residential care. There is also a means test with about seven detailed, personal questions about home ownership and income – the questions the government would take into account. The final figure informs users how much social care could cost them under the government’s new policy.

Holt, also speaking at the conference, said the motivation for building the Care Calculator came from the complexity of the subject. She had been asked to explain the new policy on BBC’s Today programme, but had found it difficult.

“We needed to get to the core of changes to social care policy and explain them in an accessible way,” Holt said.

“We believe the Care Calculator is a good example of using data for public service broadcasting. We might think that social care has little to do with us, but we probably all know someone it will impact at some time,” she added.

Walton said the data used by the BBC team was all publicly available. “The data wasn’t particularly big, or particularly glamorous. It was more utilitarian than that. Data projects can be messy, complicated and time consuming, but at the end of the day, they are worth it,” he said.

Walton closed the session with advice for those thinking of initiating a similar data journalism project: “If you have a good idea, don’t let complexity throw you. Data projects are often lengthy, but they can offer a unique insight for audiences,” he said. “If you are going to spend all this time and effort you need to make sure that when somebody sees the Web page they know what to do with it.”