2020 Shortlist

Agnel Philip’s 2019 portfolio

Category: Young journalist

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Arizona Republic

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

I’ve been fortunate to participate in large national and regional projects in the early years of my career that have produced meaningful findings and impact. In three years as a professional journalist, I’ve developed an array of data and traditional reporting skills. I’ve taught myself how to write complex web scrapers that reliably gather information I couldn’t receive from a public records request. I’ve used large databases and analyses to find sources for projects that shed insight into the human toll that the numbers on the screen hinted at.

Last year represented a large leap forward in my work that demonstrated my ability to excel in various formats and projects. In 2019, I helped launch a database hub for The Arizona Republic, led the aggregation and standardization effort for public salaries from more than 20 public agencies in Arizona, uncovered dubious business practices buried in an auction’ site code and helped a Native American community hold their leaders to account.

Now, I am the data reporter for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, which supports more than 20 local investigations. In this role, I’ve provided key assistance to more than a dozen projects from web scraping to cleaning to analysis.

I’m incredibly grateful to the editors I’ve had at both The Arizona Republic, ProPublica and my alma mater Arizona State University who have pushed me to do that makes a difference.

Description of portfolio:

My highlighted project is an in-depth examination of the causes of pedestrian deaths in Arizona. This story drew on numerous data sources and techniques. The analysis provided compelling evidence for street design’s central in Phoenix’s high rate of pedestrian fatalities.

Phoenix, the state’s largest city, was of particular interest because it had the highest rate of fatalities. I used the state’s crash data to analyze both the crash circumstances and locations in the city. I found fatal collisions typically occurred on fast, wide stretches of road with few pedestrian safety measures. By digging into archival photos, I found these roads hadn’t been redesigned in decades, and, in some cases, were widened. And the city failed to build crossing signals in high crash areas, casting doubt on officials’ ability to meaningfully reduce deaths. We used the data to identify victims in the hotspot areas and reached out to families.

As a result of this story, the city began more explicitly calling for road design changes and considered adopting a plan to eliminate all roadway deaths.

The second project involved catching a company using a suspect practice in the act. My reporting partner received a tip that an online auction house was routinely bidding on its own items in an effort to raise the price for its sellers. The tipster provided a database and a way to identify these house accounts on the auction house’s website.

Using this methodology, I created a web-scraper to pull down full auction results for a 60-day period and found these accounts, identified by misspellings of common email providers, were bidding in an unusual manner relative to others on the site. They typically bid on high-dollar items like jewelry or cars and bid later in the auctions. The company confirmed the practice, saying it was disclosed and legal. But others who bid in those auctions — who we found via the scraper — told us they were unaware of it and thought the practice was unfair. The story was a top-performer on The Arizona Republic’s website for days, and others came forward with stories of suspicious auctions.

The third project involved breaking into a typically hard to reach community. After a story I wrote on casino regulations in 2018, some members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, reached out with various concerns about their tribal nation. Near the top of the list was that their share of the tribe’s gaming enterprise profits was lower than a decade ago. This created some financial hardship in a community that had a high poverty rate. They also felt misled because they were promised great dividends after the tribe constructed a luxury casino and resort. Using check stubs, they provided and publicly available figures on enrollment, I was able to estimate the casino’s state profits– a figure they didn’t release publicly or to their members. The resulting analysis found the casino had yet to recover to its pre-Recession profit level, raising questions of whether the gaming enterprise’s finances were being properly managed. Some residents called for increased payouts and transparency as a result of my reporting.

Finally, the last set of stories are fruits of AZ Data Central, The Arizona Republic’s collection of public databases that I helped launch a year ago. From restaurant inspections to public salaries, these pages generated above average engagement. In the case of public salaries, it spurred at least one public agency to address concerns of pay disparities. I designed the pages and assembled most of the databases themselves. The salaries database, for example, required standardizing disparate data from more than 20 public agencies.

Project links: