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May 21, 2012, 1:30 p.m.
Reporting & Production

MinnPost tracks new (and stalled) laws with Bill Explorer

The news app allows readers to visualize and dive into the issues that were big at the state capitol.

Politics often gets framed in sports metaphors. For journalists, maybe that means it’s worth thinking about the merits of a good scoreboard — or, in newspaper terms, maybe the agate page from the sports section, a single place to check up on the progress of all your favorite players and games.

MinnPost’s new Bill Explorer tool accomplishes this with some data visualization and geolocation thrown in for good measure. The Bill Explorer is a spin on bill-tracker applications that a number of news organizations, watchdog groups — not to mention state legislatures and Congress — have developed to give people a sense of what their elected officials are up to. The Bill Explorer is something of a Frankenstein project, combining data from numerous sources: some directly from Minnesota Legislature bill index, some from the Minnesota governor’s office, and some scraped from state government websites.

I emailed Kaeti Hinck, MinnPost’s director of News Technology, and she said the Bill Explorer needed to work both for policy wonks and for average readers. “Our primary audience is civic-minded people who care about state politics in Minnesota. A majority of our readers come to MinnPost for our politics and policy coverage — it’s our bread and butter,” she said.

The Bill Explorer gives the duration of days it took a bill to be vetoed or become law, as well as vote totals and the names of sponsors. Individual senators and representatives get a rundown of votes on specific bills. Since the language around state house bills can sometimes be dense, MinnPost created broad categories to help readers zero in on what they’re looking for. To give a sense of what took up the most attention, the categories (business and economy, education, and so on) are in bubbles sized accordingly to the number of bills in the session. They also threw in a big red “controversial” category for things like recently passed bill approving public funding for a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings (SKOL! It’s a Vikings thing, trust me).

Hinck said the project took two and a half weeks from start to finish, working while many bills were still in limbo during the session. They anticipated having less time to work with, but votes got dragged on, allowing for additional time. Still, they would have launched the app earlier had the session ended on time. “With apps like this, we take an iterative approach: We’ll do as much as possible in the time frame, and launch the project on deadline even if it doesn’t have every feature we were hoping to build,” she said.

One of the biggest obstacles was the fact that the data collection. There’s no API for the Minnesota Legislature, so they had to piece together what they wanted through various sources, including the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States API. They also had to use ScraperWiki grab information like roll call votes from the legislature’s website and vetoes from the governor’s site. (For a more detailed account of how they built the app — which included some Python and a lot of JavaScript — read their write-up.) Hinck said the Bill Explorer builds on their experience from other data projects, like the “partisan lean” map they developed after legislative redistricting took place. With a project with this much information and moving parts, Hinck said it’s important to have a clear plan in mind. “You need to start by asking, ‘Who is our audience?’ and ‘What are we trying to solve here?’ Sometimes it involves analysis and investigation, and other times it’s simply making the data accessible and searchable,” she said.

Hinck said MinnPost’s tech team has spent time this year trying to better align the editorial and interactive process so projects can be produced more efficiently. They made the code available on Github for others to play with. Hinck said that’s standard practice for most of their projects.

“In my mind, it’s just part and parcel of being in the data journalism community. We’ve learned so much from the great work that others are doing — Chicago Tribune, ProPublica, and WNYC, to name a few — that we want to contribute what we can, as well,” she said.

POSTED     May 21, 2012, 1:30 p.m.
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