DJA nominee of the day: 2011 Illinois School Report Cards


The nominees for the 2012 edition of the Data Journalism Awards (DJA) were announced on 27 April at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. In this series of posts we are featuring the 57 nominated projects one by one in order to tell the story behind each project. Every day we are showcasing a different project from the six categories of the competition.


This project entered the DJA in the category Data-Driven Applications (local/regional). It is based on the analysis of reports released on a yearly basis by the Illinois State Board of Education about the performance of public schools and school districts in Illinois, United States. "On the state website, the data is poorly presented, and in its raw form, the information is not understandable by a layman," read the comments of the team behind the project submitted via the competition entry form.

This Chicago Tribune application, created by news apps editor Brian Boyer, news apps developer Joe Germuska and graphic artist Alex Bordens, aims to make the state's annual data dump (plus data from other sources) accessible to "the fine people of Illinois." Starting from the assumption that plain data isn't interesting, the News Applications team worked closely with reporters and editors to tell the interesting and important stories "hidden" in the data. 


The interface of the searchable database

The project, which took six weeks to complete, relies primarily on the school report cards data set from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). The authors also integrated data on student immunization from ISBE, and hooked into data provided by ProPublica's application The Opportunity Gap. Commenting on the results achieved through this application the team said: "The 2011 redesign of the School Report Cards application transformed a data-filled beast into something beautiful and accessible," also noting how the work began with surveys and subsequent interviews with parents, followed by intense, iterative information design work. 

The site tells the stories that the education team deemed important (where a school sits within a distribution, how a school performs within a district), and relates information that parents want, such as test scores or demographics. "After the surveying and the deciding, there was a lot of programming, working with data and chart-making involved," said the project developers. Data crunching was performed in Python with MongoDB, web development in Python and Django, HTML/CSS was also employed, while Flot was used for most charts and "lots of little bits of Javascript were applied for interactivity."

The biggest challenge was the sheer enormity of the data to be analysed: with 3,905 rows and an impressive 9,582 columns, regular data analysis tools like Excel did not prove helpful and simply "choked on data this big, so we had to adopt new tools, especially MongoDB, to make sense of it all."


An overview of some of the findings revealed by the project

This application is the central hub for the series of stories the Chicago Tribune writes annually based on the new schools data. On the homepage visitors will find links to many stories the newspaper helped report based on the data presented through this app. Most of the data visualisation is simple: just charts and tables with a histogram or two "sprinkled in for good measure." The developers believe this was, perhaps shamefully they add, the first application where the News Application team worked very closely with the graphics desk - an information designer "interned" with the team for three weeks to realize this project. Talking about the importance of visualisation for an effective end result, Boyer, Germuska and Bordens noted that "in exchange for it looking beautiful, we spent many hours training our new colleague on how websites are made. That was a challenge, but also pretty fun."

Through the application many people learned about the schools their children attend and the project generated more than 60,000 page views a month, mostly via search. "People around here love it," is the final remark of the data team when asked about feedback from their readers. The best reward a data journalism team can hope to get is an enthusiastic response from their audience and the Chicago Tribune application seems to have succeeded in this. 

Advice for aspiring data journalists:

"Think of your audience. Ask them their needs. Then make software that they'll find useful. It seems like a simple rule, but you'd be surprised how often this is not the path to making things in a newsroom."


The Data Journalism Awards are a Global Editors Network initiative supported by Google and organized in collaboration with the European Journalism Centre. Please visit the Data Journalism Awards website for the full list of nominees.