There’s something about the immediacy of the web that makes interactive features seem effortless: One click and the information is there. But of course the feel of the end product is not the same as the process required to get it there. Just ask the Los Angeles Times.
Last week the Times unveiled a new stage in its ongoing mapping project, Mapping L.A. The latest piece lets users check out crime data by neighborhood, including individual crimes and crime trends. Ultimately, the goal is to give locals access to encyclopedia-style information about their neighborhoods, including demographic, crime, and school information. And for reporters, it’s a helpful tool to add context to a story or spot trends. Getting the project where it is now has been a two-year process, drawing on talent across the newsroom and tapping the expertise of the crowd. I spoke with Ben Welsh, the LAT developer working on the project, about what it’s taken to piece it together. Hint: collaboration.
“I was lucky to find some natural allies who had a vision for what we could find out,” Welsh told me. “In some sense it’s the older generation of geek reporters. There’s this whole kind of tradition of that. We talk the same language. They collect all this data — and I want data so we can do stuff online. Even though we don’t have the same bosses, we have this kind of ad hoc alliance.”
Before Welsh could start plotting information, like crime or demographics data, the Times had to back up to a much simpler question: What are the neighborhood boundaries in Los Angeles city and county?
“Because there are no official answers and there are just sort of consensus and history and these things together, we knew from the get-go it was going to be controversial,” Welsh said. “We designed it from the get-go to let people to tell us we suck.”
And people did. About 1,500 people weighed in on the first round of the Times’ mapping project. A tool allowed users to create their own boundary maps for neighborhoods. Between the first round and second round, the Times made 100 boundary changes. (Compare the original map to the current one.) “I continue to receive emails that we’re wrong,” more than a year later, Welsh said.
An offshoot project of the neighborhood project was a more targeted question that every Angeleno can answer: “What is the ‘West Side’?” Welsh said the hundreds of responses were impassioned and creative. The West Side project was recently named a finalist for the Online News Association’s annual awards in the community collaboration category.
Welsh has now layered census, school, and crime data into the project. Working with those varied government data set brings unique problems. “We put all kinds of hours in to clean the data,” Welsh said. “I think a lot of times journalists don’t talk about that part.” At one point, the Times discovered widespread errors in the Los Angeles Police Department data, for example. The department got an early look at the project and supports the Times’ efforts, and has actually abandoned its own mapping efforts, deciding to use the Times’ instead.
Welsh doesn’t talk about the project in terms of it ever being “finished.” “With everything you add, you hope to make it this living, breathing thing,” he said. In the long-run, he hopes the Times will figure out a way to offer a more sophisticated analysis of the data. “That’s a challenging thing,” he said. In the more immediate future, he hopes to expand the geographic footprint of the project.