The Texas Tribune

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Texas Tribune

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

The Texas Tribune’s mission is to raise the level of engagement in the second-largest state through public service journalism. Data is one of the foundational tools we used to help Texans understand a whirlwind one-month special legislative session in the fall of 2021 when lawmakers redrew the state’s political maps. The process of redistricting is opaque and inaccessible but impacts every resident, including the millions of Texans of color who are the main force behind the state’s population growth. Making this process more transparent for readers is a key part of our mission.

The Tribune’s data visuals team in the fall of 2021 consisted of an editor, Darla Cameron; deputy editor, Chris Essig; two developers, Carla Astudillo and Mandi Cai; and fellows Jason Kao and Kalley Huang. We’re lucky to work with the Tribune’s politics reporters, especially voting rights beat expert Alexa Ura. Our work is supported by editors, designers, engagement journalists and engineers.

Our redistricting coverage was designed first and foremost for average Texans, people who will vote in a dramatically different political landscape for the next decade. We use technology to make it easy for them to find the information that they need. The capstone of this portfolio is a tool that allows readers to search their address to see how the new districts will affect their community. Every state should have a resource like this, and the Tribune welcomes copycats (in fact, the Tribune gives away all of our stories to be republished for free). With our permission, encouragement and advice, SpotlightPA (https://www.spotlightpa.org/news/2021/12/pennsylvania-redistricting-house-senate-districts-lookup-tool/) published a very similar redistricting comparison tool for Pennsylvania’s new legislative districts a few months after ours came out.

The entire redistricting project required very careful planning and coordination across teams. We worked with politics editors and reporters to plan every part of this project, from the original analysis questions to the final presentation. Our audience team was invaluable for sharing the resource far and wide, and our engineering team helped debug the more technical aspects of the lookup page. This portfolio illustrates how a data team has to be closely integrated with the entire organization — we’re stronger together.

Description of portfolio:

In one month in 2021, Texas lawmakers redrew political maps for the state’s congressional, House, Senate and Board of Education districts. The maps were drawn to keep Republicans in power for the next decade. The maps entrench rural, white electoral power — despite new census numbers pointing to Texans of color as the main force behind the state’s population growth.

This portfolio highlights The Texas Tribune’s work to cover every part of this process. We analyzed data, wrote stories and created graphics to help Texans interpret the new maps. Redistricting is a story about data — legislators use detailed census counts to draw maps with surgical precision. Here’s how the Tribune built a data analysis process to support our work.

First, data reporters, editors and reporters developed an analysis framework to evaluate each proposed map when it came out. To save time, we set up a Klaxon alert bot to alert us when a new map was released for analysis. We built a parser in Python to get the state’s strangely formatted files into a more legible format. This means we could get data into user-friendly, easy-to-compare spreadsheets for reporters within minutes, and use these files to answer their questions on how the districts changed over time. All this work enabled us to write analysis-packed breaking news stories as soon as the new maps were released.

After those initial stories, we wanted to work with reporters to explore specific places where the lines were redrawn in problematic ways. For this, we made a reporter-only Mapbox dashboard that allows them to see how the demographics of the districts changed in the old and new maps. This helped direct our focus for large and detailed one-off maps of noteworthy districts (such as where one district completely encircles another, like a doughnut), which we built using Datawrapper or Illustrator.

All this led to our district lookup page. This is a very reader-focused tool: We assume almost no one knows their state House, Senate or congressional district numbers, but everyone knows their address. It’s powered by an address-to-district conversion API that we previously used for election results pages. The lookup also has all of the demographic data that we analyzed earlier — in simple HTML charts, because not all geographic data needs to be mapped. The maps in the project were created with Mapbox.

The map lookup page drew more than 200,000 page views so far. Reader feedback included a tweet that said “This is so much better and more user friendly than the state’s map. Bless you Texas Tribune .” Other people on twitter called this “great”, and still others said it was “fantastic work”, “well executed”, a “great tool”, “excellent tool”, “incredible tool”, and “really, really helpful.” And the coverage isn’t over — we’ll keep tracking the story of these maps as they are litigated in court and keep promoting the page as the maps are used in 2022. This is how we fulfill our mission with public service journalism.

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