Archives for category: Data + Graphics

Using public records data for reporting isn’t new. Neither is using computers to pore through information to find patterns. But as news organizations look for more ways to offer public records to readers, new takes on old standbys keep popping up.

The pet names database, a favorite of newspaper and TV websites, got a fresh twist from the Los Angeles Times this week by offering more than the standard search-and-list of names, breeds and locations. On it, you’ll find collections of interesting dog names as chosen by the staff, a common names tag cloud, maps of the breeds and names by ZIP code, a tie-in with the reader photos page, and space for user comments.

LA Times dog names database

Times database developer Ben Welsh says the project was a way for him to learn how to navigate through Los Angeles’ complex bureaucracy.

Welsh moved to L.A. from Washington, D.C. several months ago. “When I got here, I knew that learning how many cities make up L.A. County and how the different services get managed was going to be something I needed to get skilled at, so I thought: I need kind of a test case,” he says. The dog names database became his experiment.

The first step was to figure out which offices held the records, then to request the information in accordance with the California Public Records Act. To avoid being turned down for privacy concerns, “I made sure in my earliest communications with people, kind of the first round, to say I don’t want the address of the owner, but I do want their ZIP code,” Welsh says.

Data from each agency was merged into a single file, then the development stage began. Welsh built the database on Django, an open-source development tool created at the Lawrence Journal-World and based on the Python programming language.

Though Welsh says he tries not to advocate one framework or language over another, he personally prefers Django for two reasons: he knows Python, and Django instantly produces a form that allows anyone, not just people with programming skills, to enter data.

That said, the pets database is only the second Times project to be developed on Django. Other programmers at the news company have used Ruby on Rails for site sections including the photo-driven Hollywood Backlot and the L.A. listings and review section, The Guide.

“It’s clear that the people who made (Django) worked in a newsroom,” Welsh says. In tight-deadline situations, having many people working on different aspects of a project at the same time is imperative. On the same day the backend database was created, reporters and researchers began entering data.

“And then simultaneously as they’re working on entry, the developer can also be working on building the public-facing site, which is where you want to invest your most resources, because that’s going to decide whether you sink or swim,” Welsh says.

Though Welsh couldn’t estimate how long the project took from the first public information request to official launch, he says he dedicated most of about two or three weeks to development once the database became top priority.

The project came together so quickly, in part, because it had been based on a prior effort, a database of California soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan that was launched Memorial Day weekend.

“We were able to save effort by borrowing a lot of the layout and stuff, but not everything, from the ‘War Dead’ design and they have a lot of similarities if you’ve used the two,” Welsh says. “And that was sort of an investment that paid off the second time around.”

A new feature on the dog names database is the list of similar names that appears on each name page. The list is created using the Soundex function in mySQL.

Soundex is a patented phoentic algorithm that converts words into numeric code that can then be used to search for similar-sounding words.

Welsh says he applied the Soundex function in “what’s called a custom manager in the Django code that I wrote that just has a SQL statement that passes in whatever that current name is in the URL into the database and finds names that have a similar Soundex score.”

Among the list of interesting dog names is “Pick of the Litter (Editor’s Choice).” In it, you’ll find Welsh’s selections for “the weirdest, funniest, best names in Los Angeles.”

They include Otis, and Chandler (together, the name of the L.A. Times founder), Dr. Zaius, and several names that may be familiar to Django fans.

“It was also an opportunity to give a tongue-in-cheek shoutout to the Lawrence, Kansas, guys,” Welsh says.

The interesting dog names categories started as “just fiddling through the data and seeing the fun ones and wanting to share that with other people,” Welsh says.

“I think for us, also, there was a desire to find ways to package the information so that it would be useful or be topical for other bloggers on our site, where if we have a list of the presidential names, maybe Andy Malcolm would like to write about it at ‘Top of the Ticket,’ or if we have a list of superhero names, it might fit on our superhero blog — just kind of thinking what are the things that the paper covers and that people come to us for and can we find names in there that sort of line up with that.”

What began as an exercise in learning the L.A. County records system has become a way for Welsh to connect with readers. And he says reader comments, especially those left on the “California’s War Dead” database have been the most rewarding and touching aspect of his work so far.

“The people, to whatever degree, trust the site, or they think it’s worthy of depositing information like that, which is very sensitive and very personal.

“Just the fact that someone felt comfortable enough to do that makes me feel like we must’ve done something right. I’m not exactly sure what, but something.”

“The pet name database is a staple of computer-assisted reporting.”

Derek Willis, Web developer, IRE member

Examples of online pet names databases abound.

Here are a few, listed Woody Allen-style. Feel free to add others in comments.

With Iraq at the forefront of political news, lots of people are asking how and when the U.S. can get itself out. Inevitably some people are also asking, “How did we get here?”

The staff of the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones asked the same question several years ago and created an interactive timeline, “Lie by Lie,” in 2006. It is a tremendous feat of research, reporting and design. And instead of letting the project languish after launch, it’s been updated through Feb. 14, 2008.

Mother Jones Lie by Lie timeline

Timelines have always been useful for presenting a series of events in linear order. With the Web’s added benefit of linking and interaction, timelines can now be a rich storytelling format that include massive amounts of information: data, photos, video, maps and links to other websites.

“Lie by Lie” is an elegant execution, one that gives readers many ways of exploring a deep and difficult subject. Craig Stoltz at Web 2.Oh Really has an interesting analysis of the timeline including this caveat:

It proves you can advance a political agenda with digital journalism just as easily as you can in the analog world. Edit, select, tweak, ignore. . .and you can assemble your own version of history, just as certainly as the wingnuts at The Washington Times or the pinkos at the New York Times.

Other examples of timelines:

  • Timelinescience, which shows developments in scientific thought over 1,000 years
  • The evolution of the monarchy in England
  • Hillary Clinton’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination
  • HIV and AIDS milestones

If you want to explore further, Jan Battem of the Netherlands has compiled a timeline index.

Interactive Narratives logoDrew DeVigal’s Interactive Narratives has relaunched.

The site is a searchable database “designed to capture the best of online visual storytelling around the country and the world.”

Register, and you can submit your own work, as well as vote on and critique others’ multimedia projects.

“Our goal is to highlight rich-media content, engaging storytelling, and eye-popping design in an environment that fosters interaction, discussion, and learning,” writes DeVigal, who is multimedia editor at The New York Times.

As storytelling online evolves from the straight-ahead text+photos/photo gallery+video format, this new site should be an interesting resource to see what other people are doing. Best of all, you don’t have to be a journalist to participate.

Editors from the Orlando Sentinel answer some of the common questions in a Flash presentation.

Orlando Sentinel front pages before and after

The redesign goes live June 22, but as several others have mentioned, beauty alone isn’t enough to retain readers. The real questions: Will the stories speak to the community and address their interests, answer their questions, and provide for their needs?

One editor in the presentation mentions “more incisive writing.” Another talks about tighter stories and mentions referrals to and from the website. If you read the Orlando Sentinel in print, let us know what you think of the changes after the paper hits the stands Sunday.

While election coverage may be on hiatus, speculation on who will be our next president is about to run wild.

Sean Connelley of the Los Angeles Times created an interactive, embeddable map that lets you test different electoral vote scenarios.

Think Wisconsin will go to McCain? Click and the state turns red. Believe the die-hard Democrats and progressives will come out in force? Click again and the state turns blue.

Assign a color based on which way you think each state will go, then click “share” and embed the map anywhere to trumpet your predictive prowess or just show what it will take for Obama or McCain to get into the Oval Office.

Politics may be serious business, but as the jockeying during primaries has proven, it’s also a bit of a game.

Eric Ulken has created a tag cloud culled from the nearly 2,800 anonymous comments posted at

What’s interesting is the most frequent words by far are “work,” “story,” “people” and “editor” (which is, technically, a person too).

Without reading through each comment, Eric’s data tells me journalists are mad about the same things most workers are: They don’t like certain aspects of their jobs and they don’t like their coworkers.

Without more context, someone trying to tackle the problem wouldn’t have a lot to go on, showing once again the tag cloud is a decent navigation tool, but not a useful interpretive tool.

Downtown Toronto will go dark at 8 p.m. Saturday as citizens turn out the lights to observe Earth Hour, a World Wildlife Fund campaign to raise global awareness of the human impact on the environment.

The Toronto Star staff produced a map of participants, but apparently was overwhelmed by the response and didn’t map all 1,163 places.

Nevertheless, it appears the area stretching from York to East York is going to be very, very dark.

Toronto Star Earth Hour Map

Toronto is just one of 26 flagship cities that will take part in the event. The Star is preparing readers for their hour of darkness with special coverage, which began with the breathtaking “Airsick” video (posted here in January).

It would have been fun and useful to have a separate map or map overlay of events instead of text listings by neighborhood.

Still, kudos to the staff for spending time on a project that serves its community.

More information can be found on the Earth Hour site and, of course, there’s an official Flickr pool.

Starting Friday, journalists and researchers from all over will gather at Georgia Tech for Journalism 3G: The Future of Technology in the Field.

Though there hasn’t yet been a lot of discussion on the group’s CrowdVine site, a look at the member list shows a wide swath of interesting minds and movers who are pushing online journalism to be more than just text + photo + video + comments.

According to the conference website, there almost 220 people have registered. If you can’t make down to Georgia, you can watch the live webcast starting Feb. 22 at 1 p.m. ET

Ryan Sholin at Invisible Inked is looking for bright spots that redefine news.

He’s started a list that shows some creative Web executions. Several commenters have added sites of their own. For example:

What I find interesting is that most of the examples on Ryan’s page are from newspapers. Other organizations (NPR, anyone?) must be doing interesting things as well. C’mon, represent!

If you’ve got redefining work of your own, feel free to show it off here in comments, and let Ryan know.