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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.”

October 15 2010

14:00

Columbia developing a year-round news outlet to let students learn how to build and serve an audience

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that journalism schools, even more than other media institutions, are experiencing an existential crisis under news’ new conditions. On the one hand, schools are upholders of tradition and journalistic principles; on the other hand, their practical mandate — “to prepare the next generation of journalists” — requires them to be forward-looking in ways that would intimidate even the most prescient futurists among us. And the schools are navigating the common anxiety in remarkably unique ways: CUNY, under the guidance of Jeff Jarvis, is bringing a new focus to journalistic entrepreneurialism; Arizona State’s Cronkite School is partnering with The Arizona Republic and 12 News to fact-check politicians; NYU recently launched The Local East Village, a community-driven, hyperlocal site, in conjunction with The New York Times; Columbia has developed its Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which launches this Tuesday, and established its joint master’s program with the university’s engineering school.

To Columbia’s list we can now add another innovation: The j-school is developing a new site that will function as a year-round, standalone news outlet. It will be topic-based rather than hyperlocal — think broad concepts like health, crime, government spending, etc. — but it will be focused on New York City (or, as the j-school’s dean of academic affairs, ex-WSJ.com managing editor Bill Grueskin calls it, “our local hometown of 8.3 million people”). The site is still in its early planning stages, and details are still being worked out; as a strategy, though — and as a symbolic step forward — it has a mission that feels appropriately back-to-the-future: The site, Grueskin told me, will be about “doing journalism that’s of real value to the community.”

A permanent home for content

Websites featuring student work are nothing new, of course, at Columbia or other programs: Columbia’s introductory reporting and writing courses have web presences that act as training venues and work-distribution outlets, as do many of its content-specific courses (one of which, Columbia News Service, distributes its work via the New York Times News Service and Syndicate). And, school-wide, The Columbia Journalist exists to showcase some of the best student work produced during the academic year. Those products don’t, however, operate year-round; on the contrary, their content yields to the semester system, complete with vacations, interruptions for exams, and, of course, the summer hiatus. “You create these beautiful sites,” Grueskin points out, “and then two months later, they go dark.”

To change that — to create a site that produces content year-round, enabling it to be a destination rather than simply a means of distribution — the school will establish a new post-graduate fellowship program, along the lines of its Columbia Journalism Review and digital media fellowships, both of which currently take two students from each graduating class to work at the school for a year after graduation. (I was one of the CJR fellows after I graduated from the school.) Though the number of fellows to be hired, and their pay, remains to be determined — everything depends on the amount of money the school is able to raise for the project — the influx of journalistic manpower will add to the crop of students who stay on to contribute something and, in the process, extend their education. It will also combat the dark-site problem.

The new importance of audience

Which is only a problem, of course, if you care about building an audience for your work — if you define a school’s mission not only in terms of educating students, but also in terms of education more broadly: cultivating a community around journalism. That’s where Columbia’s upcoming site becomes especially significant: It’s merging the two goals, broadening its definition of good journalism education to include those clichéd-but-crucial new media buzzwords: “user engagement.” That’s a pedagogical mandate. Understanding the nuances of building and keeping an audience “is a crucial skill,” notes dean Nick Lehmann — particularly given the increasingly common assumption that editorial content will be produced in some kind of partnership with consumers as journalism reinvents its compact with the public. (The people formerly known as, and all that.) So “a big next step for us to take is to have a real audience for one of our sites that we can interact with,” Grueskin says.

That really is a big next step. J-schools, in the “conservatory” model of arts programs, have often regarded journalism not only as a public service, but also as a craft. In that, they’ve prided themselves on their very separation from the vagaries of the marketplace — which is to say, from audiences. The site’s bid for audience alone marks a significant shift in the role j-schools are carving for themselves in the new media landscape. “Journalists love to have impact,” Grueskin puts it, “and you want to feel that the journalism that you’re doing is being read or watched or listened to, and then acted upon.” There’s also the nice education loop a standalone site provides: “If this got up and running, it could actually create a fair amount of data and information that could feed back nicely into the way that we continue to try to improve the way that we teach journalism.”

Part of the work of the outlet — and, from the pedagogical perspective, part of the instruction it will offer to the students staffing it — could be in collaborating with other outlets to customize that content, and those platforms, for their needs. “We are probably less interested in pairing up with a single news organization, and more interested in acting as what you might call ‘a news service for the 21st century,’” Grueskin says: “news, or tools for news, that can be adopted by other media players, large, medium, and small.” (Think along the lines of ProPublica’s embeddable and adaptable news applications, for example — or, from a content perspective, data sets that “can be very easily localized and adapted by either big players or small.”) So “while there would be a website associated with the effort,” Grueskin says, “that wouldn’t be the sum total.”

Indeed, the site, like most news sites nowadays, would be only one aspect of the school’s broader push toward community engagement and journalistic impact. “Because of who we are and what we do and the larger institution we’re located in,” Lehmann says, “we can probably do year-round, meaningful local news coverage more cheaply and sustainably than a standalone, de novo, web-only organization can do. So we may be a more efficient way to meet that social need — and that’s a good motivation for us, too.”

May 21 2010

08:32
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