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July 01 2011

15:00

ProPublica’s newest news app uses education data to get more social

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a data set — the most comprehensive to date — documenting student access to advanced classes and special programs in U.S. public high schools. Shorthanded as the Civil Rights survey, the information tracks the access schools provide to their students for offerings, like Advanced Placement courses, gifted-and-talented programs, and higher-level math and science classes, that studies suggest are important factors for educational attainment — and for success later in life.

ProPublica reporters used the Ed data to produce a story package, “The Opportunity Gap,” that analyzes the OCR info and other federal education data; their analysis found that, overall and unsurprisingly, high-poverty schools are less likely than their wealthier counterparts to have students enrolled in those beneficial programs. The achievement gap, the data suggest, isn’t just about students’ educational attainment; it’s also about the educational opportunities provided to them in the first place. And it’s individual states that are making the policy decisions that affect the quality of those opportunities. ProPublica’s analysis, says senior editor Eric Umansky, is aimed at answering one key question: “Are states giving their kids a fair shake?”

The fact that the OCR data set is relatively comprehensive — reporting on districts with more than 3,000 students, it covers 85,000 schools, and around 75 percent of all public high schoolers in the U.S. — means that the OCR data set is also enormous. And while ProPublica’s text-based takes on the info have done precisely the thing you’d want them to do — find surprises, find trends, make it meaningful, make it human — the outfit’s reporters wanted to go beyond the database-to-narrative formula with the OCR trove. Their solution: a news app that encourages, even more than your typical app, public participation. And that looks to Facebook for social integration.

The app focuses on measuring equal access on a broad scale: It tracks not only the educational opportunities provided by each school, but also the percentage of teachers with two years’ experience or less — who, as a group, tend to effect smaller attainment gains than their more experienced counterparts — and the percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of poverty. (More on the developers’ methodology here.)

ProPublica leads the field in developing news apps; each one requires careful thought about how users will actually navigate — and benefit from — the app. With this one, though, “we were focusing a lot more on what behaviors we wanted to encourage,” says Scott Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications. ProPublica thinks about how organize reporters, both within and outside of its newsroom, around its stories, notes Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of distributed reporting. “Here, we wanted to take it one step further.”

With that in mind, the app invites both macro and micro analysis, with an implicit focus on personal relevance: You can parse the data by state, or you can drill down to individual schools and districts — the high school you went to, or the one that’s in your neighborhood. And then, even more intriguingly, you can compare schools according to geographical proximity and/or the relative wealth and poverty of their student bodies. (Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, just down the street from the Lab, has 1,585 students, 38 percent of whom receive a free or reduced-price lunch; Medfield Senior High, a few miles southwest of Cambridge, has 920 students and a 1-percent free/reduced lunch rate. Four percent of Rindge and Latin’s students are enrolled in advanced math courses; for Medfield High, the rate is 42 percent.) “It really is an auto-story generator,” Umansky says.

And sharing — the Facebook aspect of the app — is a big part of the behavior ProPublica’s news apps team wanted to encourage. They considered social integration from a structural perspective, notes Al Shaw, the developer who authored the app, and worked with Vadim Lavrusik, Facebook’s Journalist Program Manager, to optimize the app-to-Facebook interface. One small-but-key feature: With that integration, users who are signed into Facebook can generate an individual URL for each cluster of data they dig up — the Rindge and Latin-versus-Medfield comparison, say — to make sharing and referencing the data almost seamless. The resulting page has a “share on Facebook” button along with a note: “Use this hashtag to share your insights on Twitter: #myschoolyourschool.”

The ed-data app isn’t social for its own sake; instead, it serves the broad and sometimes nebulous goal of having impact — on both a personal and a policy level. “We invest so much time into acquiring data and cleaning data and making sense of data,” Michel notes; ultimately, though, data doesn’t mean much unless people can understand how it immediately affects them, their communities, their kids. Its newest app, Michel says, is part of ProPublica’s broader strategy: to make data, overall, more social. (They’d like to do a similar integration with Twitter, too, she says.) The point is to find ways to marry social and story, to turn online interactions into their own kind of data sets so, she says, “people can layer their stories on top of them.”

June 30 2010

13:00

ProPublica’s website redesign puts “future of context” ideas to work

Late last night, ProPublica launched a redesign of its website. As most site revamps tend to be, the new propublica.org is sleeker, slicker, and generally more aesthetically pleasing than its previous incarnation. But it’s also more intuitively navigable than the previous version, incorporating the accumulated changes that the investigative outfit has learned about its users, its contributors, and its journalism in the past two-and-a-half years. As Scott Klein, the outlet’s editor of News Applications and the site revamp’s chief architect, puts it in his intro to the redesign:

When we first sat down to design our website in early 2008, we had just started as an organization, and we had yet to publish anything. We had only a skeleton staff. We had to create something of a Potemkin village website, guessing at the kinds of coverage we’d be doing and how we’d be presenting it. In the two years since, we’ve constantly tweaked the site, and have bolted on new features that we never imagined we’d be doing.

With this redesign, we’ve tried to take everything we’ve learned, and everything we’ve added, and put it together into one nice, clean site. Our hope is that the level of design sophistication now matches the sophistication of our reporting.

The revamp has been in the works, in earnest, basically since November, Klein told me — with many of the intervening months spent not in designing and coding, but in conversing: explaining to the designers the outlet hired to help with the overhaul (the San Francisco-based firm Mule) what ProPublica does and what it’s about. Before they could design ProPublica’s new website, Mule essentially “needed to get a Masters degree,” Klein says, in the organization itself.

It seems they did. Propublica.org now feels more mission-coherent than the original site. The “Donate” button is more prominent than on the previous — a not-so-subtle reminder that ProPublica, known as it is for the substantial funding it’s received from the Sandler Foundation, is always looking for more money, from more sources, to sustain its work. (Speaking of, scratch that: It’s “Donate” buttons that are prominent, three on the front page.)

The site has also added, in its “About Us” section, a list of FAQs — complete with (helpfully, delightfully) an audio-filled name-pronunciation guide: “Some pronounce it Pro-PUB-lica, some Pro-POOB-lica. Most folks here in the newsroom pronounce it Pro-PUB-lica. Of course we’re always happy to be mentioned, using any pronunciation.” (The ProPublica staff were inspired to write FAQs, senior editor Eric Umansky told me, by fellow-online-only-nonprofit Voice of San Diego — which posted its own FAQs last week.)

The new site tries to answer questions in the broader sense, too. In a recent episode of their “Rebooting the News” podcast, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer discussed the systemic challenges of the multi-level crowd: audiences — or users, or readers, or whatever term you prefer — who come into stories with differing amounts of prior knowledge, differing contextual appreciations, differing levels, essentially, of interest and information. One problem news organizations face — and it’s a design issue as much as a strictly editorial one — is how to engage and serve those different users through the same interface: the website.

The ProPublica redesign tries to address that issue by making consumption of the journalism its site contains a choose-your-own-adventure-type proposition. The revamped site, like its previous version, features, at the top of every page, a list of topics that have become focus areas of ProPublica investigations (currently, “Gulf Spill,” “New Orleans Cops,” “Loan Mods,” and six more). Now, though, the landing pages of those topic-based verticals (whose content is generally organized chronologically, river-of-news-style) also feature curated, interactive boxes that incorporate live data from ProPublica’s new applications. Check out the “Calif. Nurses” vertical, above — anchored by “Problem Nurses Remain on Job as Patients Suffer,” a finalist for this year’s Public Service Pulitzer. Scroll down past that top curated box, and there are further options for self-navigation: Users can filter stories according to their general significance (the “Major Stories Only” button), their personal significance (the “Unread Stories Only” button), their author, or their age.

The idea was to give users several paths into, and among, stories and topics, Klein explains. It’s a kind Google’s Living Stories experiment was an inspiration in that respect, he says, as was the filter-focused layout of the website of Washington’s Spokesman-Review. The changes are about making the site a personal, and even somewhat personalized, place — and about making it accessible to new users while still compelling for the old.

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