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Oct. 3, 2012, 10:42 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Knight funding expands IRE’s journalist-friendly Census site

Developers from The Chicago Tribune, WNYC, and The Spokesman-Review will expand Census.IRE.org to include more data.

Census data can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be the bane of your existence. At one point or another, most journalists have tried to wade into the U.S. Census website or Census.IRE.org.

Now the project is getting an additional boost from the Knight Foundation. A winner in the data round of the Knight News Challenge, Census.IRE.org will expand its set of tools and add more data thanks to $450,000 in new funding. “With Knight giving us more money, we can take the basic idea and do it a little more fully,” said Joe Germuska, a senior news applications developer for the Chicago Tribune who heads the project. “The idea is to make it dead simple for journalist to use Census data.”

The site is fairly straightforward, allowing users to browse data by state, county, place, and drill down from there into age, race, gender and other factors. On top of being a searchable database, the site is also a data repository. If you’re building something of your own, the numbers are available for download in different formats.

Census data plays a very important role in most newsrooms, either providing baseline demographic information for stories or powering news apps and data visualizations. But for many newsrooms, the task of finding that data and putting it in a useful format can be a difficult. It’s also a process that has a disproportionate effect on newsrooms. Larger publishers may be more likely to have a team to work specifically on data; smaller publishers would have to pull people off other projects or skip it entirely. That’s one of the main reasons Germuska and a group of news developers from The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, and more built the first Census site for Investigative Reporters and Editors, which uses numbers from the 2010 Census. “Based on anecdotal experience in the journalist world, we built something people found pretty handy,” he said.

With the News Challenge funding, Germuska will expand the site, working with John Keefe, senior editor for data news and journalism technology at WNYC, and Ryan Pitts, the senior editor for digital media at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. The team plans to hire additional developers to build out the site. One of the first goals is incorporating data from the American Communities Survey, Germuska said.

Keefe said the reason the site caught on with newsrooms was ease of use. Having simple navigation means a reporter on deadline can find what they need fast, and they’re likely to come back, he said. “I’m just a huge admirer-slash-user of the existing site,” Keefe said. For him, the best feature is the cleaned-up, formatted data for download, which can be fed directly into apps or maps WNYC is working on. One thing data journalists especially appreciate about the site is that it allows for comparisons between 2000 and 2010 Census numbers, which requires adjusting for changes in Census tracts, Keefe said. “These guys are journalists who use this data, have used the data, and understand what they need at the end of it,” he said.

The Census site fits a lot of the criteria Knight has outlined in the data challenge. It’s an existing project that builds on established data. It’s also targeted for an audience that could range from journalists to data scientists or people within a given community.

But the site was built specifically with journalists in mind, Germuska told me. That meant the team exercised some editorial judgement in the design, knowing what things journalists look for and what they typically don’t need. “For software development work, we try to have a clear idea of who is going to use the tool and look at all the choices we make and assess them from that,” Germuska said.

Census.IRE.org is just one of several News Challenge projects past and present that have brought together developers from various news organizations to work on something for the broader industry. Germuska said data journalists are open to sharing code in order to see what others can do with it. While there can be a competition to break stories on the reporting side, the push is towards collaboration on the data desk, he said. The goals of data journalism apps like Census.IRE.org is to facilitate better journalism no matter who’s doing it, he said.

“At the end of the day it feels like it should be possible to say ‘I care about this place, let me go get the Census data about this place,'” he said.

POSTED     Oct. 3, 2012, 10:42 a.m.
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