Tim Broderick: On Data Projects and Probing Illinois School Data

August 04, 2016 by Isabelle Lim

Tim Broderick is the Editor of Data Journalism and Graphics at the Daily Herald where he also reports extensively on education issues. His ambitious data project, the “Poverty-Achievement Index”, is a joint analysis between the Herald and WBEZ, measuring the link between poverty and school achievement in elementary and high schools across the State of Illinois.

At a recent Chi Hack Night, we sat down with Tim to discuss his data projects, what hinders journalists from working with data, and how he’s honed his skills as a data journalist.

Your work on the Poverty-Achievement Index uses data to show how Illinois schools are deeply influenced and stratified by income. How did this project come together?

I took this thing [Illinois Report Card data] and I divided schools into levels based on percentage of low income students they had. I went back to 2004 when the data first started and in every year at every level you can see how stratified all the levels are: 0 to 9.9% was the lowest and 90 to 100% was the highest. At no point does a group cross over another group. So it was really a very telling data project. We incorporated this into our annual report card. The original thing came out last summer, and once I did the initial analysis we got WBEZ interested and Linda Lutton, who’s a very prominent radio journalist and just a fantastic person to work with.

The story includes an interactive data visualization. What are the tools you used for this?

I use a data library called HighCharts. I just didn’t have enough time to go and learn D3.js, which is a data visualization tool, so I’m kind of leaning on this library, HighCharts. It’s based on D3, and one of these days I’ll get around to learning how to use D3 more. That’s the thing – there’s just so much to learn, it’s just continuous improvement.

For a really large story like this, how do you publish your methodology? Do you share the raw source data instance?

When I designed the site, one of the things I said was that we were specifically going to explain everything. So all the data is on GitHub, and this was the first time we had shared anything open source.

We do try and share all the data that we have – it’s one of the things that I do every week. The other person [at the Daily Herald], Jake Griffin, does a lot of tax watchdog stuff. He uses Excel a lot and previously he published PDFs. But PDFs aren’t as interesting as having a list that’s searchable and sortable. So I’ll take this [data] and put it in a table, and we can either link to it or put it in the story.

What has helped you in moving from traditional journalism to data journalism?

Investigative Reporters and Editors, IRE. I’m a member and I just went to my first NICAR conference. If you have the chance to go to NICAR I highly recommend it. It was great. There are all these data journalists there and they just teach you things. It’s fantastic. I got up and running on Jango and now I’m deploying an internal Jango site that will allow our editors to crowdsource getting candidate data. It’s a database [where] you’re able to go in, add candidates to races and have one place where people can do a search and find previous candidate questionnaire responses. Right now they’re [the data’s] just sitting on our internal server in spreadsheets. The skillset is changing, but it’s still taking a lot of time.

Investigative reporters and editors logo

Reporting is in a transitional phase isn’t it?

It’s very transitional. In January I taught someone how to copy and paste. That’s how transitional it is! I was like, “You never had to do that before?” He would just delete and re-type. You know, old habits.

The skill set for reporting is interpersonal relationships, developing sources, knowing who to talk to. And that’s really important. I don’t have a problem with that because a really good reporter can get fantastic stories by talking to people. It really is [about] how much time you want them to spend learning how to do a video on a phone? You know, they can do a little bit but that’s why you don’t get rid of the photographers or videographers or graphic artists. Yes, one person can do it all but somebody who’s really good at one thing – that’s really valuable.

What’s the biggest challenge convincing journalists to move into data journalism or start picking up the required data skills?

The biggest challenge is probably time. Newsrooms have shrunk a lot since the recession and everybody’s doing more than what they used to do. That investment in time to learn how to code I did outside of company time. And I brought that back in to prove that, “Hey if you give me more time in here I can do even more”. So I’m getting that time at work but I’m still doing tutorials in my own time and learning. I have to differentiate it with my wife. “Are you working? No, I’m learning.” We have an agreement. If I’m learning, it’s ok. If I’m working, you know, its “turn off the computer you’re home!”

Right, that’s definitely something we’ve heard. Most of the reporters we’ve spoken to had to learn a lot of their data skills on their own time – one took two years off of journalism to take a job as a programmer. It’s a big investment.

Yeah, I can’t do that anymore. I’m probably one of the oldest data journalists around the Chicago area I’m going to guess. I started doing this when I was around 50. And it’s not my mid-life crisis, it’s me staying relevant and just paying attention to the trends.

This interview is part of our Summer Data Journalism Series where we speak with data journalists based in Chicago and beyond about their work and challenges with data. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.