3 Winning ways to use data: A roundup of 2015 IRE Award projects


Journalists who helped free enslaved laborers, improved the safety net for injured workers and brought about reforms for failing schools serving mostly black youth, are being honored as winners of the 2015 Investigative Reporters & Editors Awards.

The awards recognize the most outstanding watchdog journalism of the year, covering 17 categories across media platforms and a range of market sizes.

This year’s winners come from a mix of new and established media, and data driven techniques were harnessed by a large number of the entries. We compiled a roundup how the three winning entries leveraged data in their reporting:

1. Seafood from Slaves, The Associated Press, Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan (Category: Innovation Large)

By digging into customs records, investigating satellite photos, and compiling qualitative first-hand data from interviews, the team at AP uncovered pervasive labor abuses in Thailand’s seafood industry.

Beginning with an investigation into the journey of a single shipment of seafood from Indonesia, the team analyzed satellite imagery to track its movements into Thai waters. Then, after following the cargo trucks to its storage or sales points, they looked at publicly available US Customs records to trace the slave-caught seafood’s flow into the American market.

The use of US Customs data, according to Martha Mendoza, one of the journalists behind the project, allowed them to “specifically track the supply chain to the major retailers, so they could no longer disassociate themselves from the labor abuse”.

Findings at different stages are compiled in long form pieces, and can be explored via an interactive platform with audiovisual components.


Image: An interactive visualization documenting the flow of slave-caught seafood from Asia to American retailers.

“Not content to merely document the plight of these workers, the AP traced the fruits of this slave labor all the way to the seafood counters in U.S. cities. This innovative approach to bringing the faraway story home to U.S. readers and its powerful use of multimedia storytelling made this piece the most innovative of the year,” commended the IRE judges.

2. Insult to Injury: America’s Vanishing Worker Protections, ProPublica and NPR, Michael Grabell (ProPublica), Howard Berkes (NPR), Lena Groeger (ProPublica), Yue Qiu (ProPublica) and Sisi Wei (ProPublica) (Category: Print/Online Large)

An investigation into workers compensation in the United States, driven by custom built databases that tracked state legislation changes and data gathered from insurance benefit plans and depositions. Data is presented via a number of interactive visualizations, and complimented with long form pieces drawing on individual stories.

For example, to paint a picture of how compensation for limb losses is calculated across states, the investigation drew on personal accounts of two workers who suffered arm losses in Georgia and Alabama. Their stories, which illustrated the large variance in compensation awarded by each state, were then put into a country-wide context via an interactive data visualization.


Image: Screenshot of the Workers’ Compensation Reforms by State Interactive, showing the difference in compensation for big toe losses across states.

This visualization allows users to explore the different amounts awarded for particular limb losses by state. Users can delve deeper into the situation of a particular state by clicking onto its related icon, which then shows where it places in relation to the national average compensation amount for each limb.


Image: Screenshot of the interactive’s California section.

Data behind this visualization contains more than 600 calculations, with 52 underlying formulas.

“Each state has its own formula for how to calculate compensation. Most are based on decades-old benefit tables that assign a certain number of weeks of compensation to each body part,” outlines the methodology document.

“Doctors rate what portion of the injured body part is impaired. Insurers then multiply that rating by the number of weeks in the law for that body part and then by a portion of the workers’ wages up to the state maximum.”

ProPublica has made some of the data behind the project available for download via its Data Store.

3. Failure Factories, Tampa Bay Times, Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner, Michael LaForgia and Nathaniel Lash (Category: Print/Online Medium)

Recognized by IRE for its “deep reporting, clear writing and detailed data analysis", this project by the Tampa Bay Times reviewed thousands of school district documents, millions of computer records and qualitative data from interviews with over 100 parents, to reveal chronic failings in the Pinellas Country schooling district.

The data investigation focused on telling the stories of the five elementary schools that were struggling the most, and the team dedicated a large amount of time experimenting with ways to visualize the issue’s broader narrative.

“Crafting a story out of the analysis didn’t come easily. Over the months Nathaniel [a data reporter on the project] spent analyzing data for the project, he turned out dozens of unique drafts of the chart. Most began with exploratory data analyses, which in this case meant scores of scatterplots, looking at test scores and enrollment for every elementary school in Florida,” explained Adam Playford, the Times’ director of data and digital enterprise.


Image: An early scatterplot analysis of resegregation in the district.

“This analysis guided one of the most distinctive slides of the chart, letting readers scroll to see south St. Petersburg’s schools becoming more segregated year after year. In this visualization, time advances vertically down the page—an admittedly unusual decision, given that time is more usually shown left to right, along the X axis. We liked the visceral effect that came from letting readers scroll to see the pattern reveal itself, and we didn’t think that effect would work as well if readers were scrolling down while the chart unfurled sideways.”


Image: The project’s waterfall-style vertical scrolling visualization, highlighting increased segregation.

Explore the full list of winners and finalists here.