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March 31, 2010, 10 a.m.

Collaboration’s power: ProPublica’s healthcare bill viewer

That very cool, side-by-side comparison of the Senate and House health care bills ProPublica launched before the health care reconciliation vote? It came about over coffee.

Jeff Larson, the outfit’s news applications developer, and Olga Pierce, its health reporter, were taking a break from the proceedings at this year’s NICAR conference earlier this month in Phoenix. They began chatting about what ProPublica might do to help people make sense of the House reconciliation version of the Senate bill passed late last year.

“I had this Platonic idea in my head for diffed versions of the documents,” Larson says; and he and Pierce, over their coffee, realized that the reconciliation — which was, at the time, imminent — created the need for a tool that would both leverage and enable textual comparison. They ran the idea for a side-by-side bill viewer by Scott Klein, ProPublica’s news applications editor, and Klein green-lighted the tool. Building the tool in time for Sunday’s vote would require a less-than-two-day turnaround — a challenge made more acute by the fact that the reconciliation version released by the House wasn’t a new version at all, but rather “a 150-page list of amendments to the Senate bill (‘strike paragraph 4,’ ‘insert this new sentence in paragraph B…’).” So “it was one of those moments when it was like, ‘Okay, it’s go time,'” Pierce says.

They returned to ProPublica offices on Thursday and set to work: Larson, coding the infrastructure that would enable side-by-side document viewing; Pierce, entering the changes in the reconciliation markup — one by one, manually, via cut-and-paste. She worked until 6 a.m. on Friday (“it was an exercise in Zen, basically,” she says); later that morning, the team added reinforcements to help her wrap up the job. By Friday afternoon, the comparison tool was live, and being linked, and raking in kudos from around the web:

Which would simply be a nice little vignette — an Engine That Could story, with a startuppy twist — except that it also offers a nice little lesson. Because it wasn’t just ingenuity and industry that led to the quick creation of a very useful tool; it was also, even more importantly, interactivity. Pierce and Larson, who sit just feet away from each other in the ProPublica newsroom, regularly converse about new applications that will make the most of the data Pierce gathers and employs in her work. “I can just stroll over and be like, ‘Okay, I have this idea…'” she says. (“And then Jeff goes like this,” she adds, putting her head in her hands.)

They laugh, but they also see the value in that kind of casual conversation — particularly now, as reporting and coding become increasingly mutualized. “In other places, I would be on an entirely different floor than Olga, or maybe even in a different building,” Larson says. “And we just never would interface and come up with these ideas.” ProPublica’s newsroom, though — a large spread on the 23rd floor of a lower-Manhattan high-rise, with everyone save for the top editors and a few business-side staffers sharing cube space in an open layout — encourages interaction and idea-sharing. Among all staff, but in particular between the tech side and the editorial: two groups that are all too often separated in newsrooms, not just rhetorically, but geographically. Too often, Larson says, “there’s kind of a Chinese wall.” But a good layout can make all the difference; and that’s just as true for newsrooms as it is for the news itself.

POSTED     March 31, 2010, 10 a.m.
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