2021 Shortlist

Big Local News – sharing local data for journalistic impact

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Big Local News in collaboration with Pitch Interactive, an evictions project by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and partners.

Organisation size: Small

Big Local News is a program of Stanford University’s Journalism and Democracy Initiative and collects local data to discover the patterns that will yield stories with impact. We go after data sets that are hard to obtain because they’re kept in disparate, scattered locations by multiple jurisdictions. Big Local News works with newsrooms to process, analyze and archive the data they collect, including building tools to help journalists retrieve the information they need to tell important stories.

This platform allows journalists – whether freelancers, reporters from one company or collaborations across multiple news organizations – to share data and work together as they report out stories. The platform is being integrated with specialized tools for data cleaning and analysis. Big Local News also has a relationship with the Stanford Digital Repository where both raw and processed data can be archived permanently. Archived data is then be made publicly available.

This work is designed to be journalist-driven and transformative, to help find solutions for local newsrooms’ ability to produce accountability journalism — the type of journalism that can shift policy and law and create impact.

Description of portfolio:

The first week of March 2020, Big Local News launched its platform at NICAR, the annual conference for data journalists. At the conference in New Orleans, we held two sessions where we demoed the platform and answered questions, and then also led a hands-on workshop for developers to familiarize them with using the API to pipe data in and out of various projects. 

This happened just as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in shutdowns across the country and the globe. The platform launched in beta, but quickly transformed to a vital hub of information and guidance related to understanding data that could be used to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on local communities. Within the space of three weeks, the three Big Local News staff members, engaged Stanford students and partner newsrooms collected, processed and released a dozen data-sets. Among them: data on community vulnerability; hospital beds data from Medicare Reports, leavened with contextual detail from the Census; data on nursing homes; daily updates of the four main repositories of COVID-case data; and tweets from governors, health departments and more. Platform users have added more data to share with others as well, from data on efforts to provide free meals to reports from medical examiners and COVID case models. The Big Local News team has added even more contextual data on hospitals and data on layoff notices, updated weekly. And students working with Big Local News has been a part of analyzing data and reporting stories on these topics.

That week of the conference, there were around 70 users of the platform. A week later, there were nearly 200. By mid-May, there were 827 users, and also more than 800 files being hosted on the platform in more than 60 projects. We twice have seen usage jump by more than 70 new users in a single day. Today, there are more than 1,500 users, 177 projects and more than 2,900 data files. The platform features 33 Open Projects — those open to anyone using the platform, with data ranging from evictions to nursing home inspections, PPP loans and layoffs. 

Our goal throughout has been to support local journalists. Toward that end, and with Google News Initiative support, we created the COVID19 Case Mapper along with a design studio, Pitch Interactive. It went live on April 14. By creating embeddable interactive maps at the national, state and county levels, using New York Times data for the U.S. map and Johns Hopkins data for the global map, Big Local News made embedding maps for local journalists simple and quick. As of Jan. 4, 2021, our Case Mapper had 10,687 embeds and generated more than 2 million page views. Here are just a few examples of how the embed was used by local news outlets: The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; ABC 11 in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; The Public’s Radio in Rhode Island; and AZCentral in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

We have embarked on other projects too, providing nearly $200,000 in grants to journalists around the world to pursue data-driven COVID stories and then share the data and recipes for how to replicate similar stories elsewhere.

Now, we are working toward automating courts data we have scraped on evictions in collaboration with the University of Maryland, and developing new tools within the platform to make it easier to find the important stories within the data.

Project links: