Looking to reinvent your storytelling? Look to civic hackers for inspiration
The city of Miami has a detailed map, created by its downtown development authority, where anyone can see planned and proposed real estate development projects in the city.
I learned about Miami's map while attending Open Data Day, an annual international event that’s held in dozens of cities around the globe. In each, people come together to brainstorm how to tell stories, create Web applications and create visualizations using public, open data.
While attending Open Data Day, I saw many examples of what I consider great local, civic journalism — work that gathered data, processed it and then told a story that would help people better understand their local community or government. I also saw many opportunities for journalists to fill in gaps, tell more nuanced stories using the uncovered datasets and collaborate with a community of technologists who may benefit from the context and storytelling skills that journalists have.
If you’re looking for story ideas or have a data story idea but not the coding skills to tell it, I highly recommend attending a meeting from your local civic hacking group. Many such groups have the technical chops to sift through any dataset but not the skills to tell the story correctly — or know what story is the right one to tell.
I also recommend looking through some of the projects I learned about this weekend, many of which may be useful in your newsroom or spark new ideas in your work.
Citygram is a notifications platform that sends people in 10 cities across the country information about foreclosures, building permits, crime reports and ongoing construction projects. The platform hooks into a city’s open data platform and then texts people when there’s an incident in their geographic area.
Foodborne Chicago uses the city’s Open311 system to directly submit incidents of food poisoning to the Chicago Department of Public Health. Users found out about the site through a Twitter bot that identified words like “food poisoning” that were located in or near Chicago. Project staff from Foodborne Chicago then followed up, directing Twitter users to share incidents through the website. In the first 10 months after the project was launched, 133 food establishments received health inspections — 20 percent had at least one critical violation.
Open Data in Philadelphia is the city’s open data portal that contains over 200 datasets from the city. It features a discussion board that allows anyone to ask a question and receive a quick response from the city. I see Philadelphia’s site as a model, and one you can show to your town or city as an example of what can be done. (Also useful? These guidelines on how cities can release and identify high-quality datasets and these guidelines on what an open data portal should have. They’re a good starting point for asking your local city or town to release similar data.)
The city of Boston is piloting a new website that's also instructive for journalists. What I like about it is how user-centric the site is, how it’s separated into topics so that people don’t have to sift through multiple layers to find the information they need and how it instantly helps journalists know what people in Boston want to know more about. Writing a story in Boston? A lot of people want to know about owning a home and moving to Boston.
Want to see how an online repository of state law should look? Start with Virginia. The state’s legal website provides raw data, is easy to navigate and easily lets developers build tools or sites on top of it.
Jeremy Merrill, a developer at The New York Times, recently created a display that shows which planes are flying over his house using data extracted from a program that listens to radio systems transmitted by planes during flight. (You can also search for your airport API on GitHub: here’s one for Syracuse.)
Open Data Policing NC shows all public records related to traffic stops in North Carolina since 2002. The site also shows the racial and ethnic demographics of people stopped, searched and subjected to force. (North Carolina is the first state in the country to have an open data site for policing.)
Looking for a story idea and live in San Jose, California? The Github page for civic coders in San Jose lists project ideas (all of which would make excellent reporting projects.)
The city of South Bend, Indiana has a call-in system for gathering, sharing, and understanding community feedback.
All of these projects can be adapted for your community; they can also lead to story ideas within your own community. I also see opportunities for newsrooms to showcase projects like these, particularly if your outlet doesn’t have a data visualization team.
Ask yourself: Is there a way to embed or showcase the local projects that are uncovering data and showcasing them? Are there ways for more people to get involved in making these projects if a news organization spotlights them? The possibilities for collaboration and overlap are endless.