27/6/2016

How The Chronicle made college sexual violence data more accessible

 

If you want to know which colleges have the highest tuition, or graduate the most students, or provide the most student aid, the U.S. Department of Education makes it easy to look up that information. But if you want to know about colleges under federal investigation in cases concerning sexual violence, well, that’s not quite as easy.

Which is why we built our Title IX Tracker.

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Image: The Chronicle’s Title IX Tracker news app makes it easy for anyone to keep up to date on the latest investigations.

The federal law known as Title IX prohibits gender discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity. In 2011 the federal government put colleges on notice that it would more strictly enforce the law regarding how colleges handle students’ reports of sexual violence. Three years later, it listed 55 colleges that were under investigation. Since then — and to this day — the only “official” way to get an updated list of colleges that are or have been under investigation is to ask the Education Department.

Of course, with nearly 300 investigations open since 2011, journalists around the country were eager to learn what was happening at colleges and universities near them. And not just journalists, but advocates, parents, students, administrators, lawmakers, and researchers as well.

The Education Department’s list, available only on request, is little more than a PDF of colleges, listed by state, with the dates that investigations were opened. We thought we could do better.

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Image: The Education Department provides a PDF on request.

Starting with that list -- and filing Freedom of Information Act requests for any sexual-violence investigations resolved since 2011 -- a team of Chronicle editors, reporters, and developers built a database that also includes links to news stories about sexual assault at each listed college, links to campus resources, and links to case files we received through more FOIA requests.

When we launched the project, in January 2016,, we knew it would be of interest to other journalists and made sure to let them know about it. Indeed, several news outlets, including Politico, Patch, Slate, and The Boston Globe, wrote about the tracker soon after it went live.

We appreciated the publicity, but what we really wanted to see was journalists and others using the tool to inform themselves about the issues and the enforcement process. To encourage that, we built a system with which users could be alerted by email when cases were added or updated. We were glad that some of the first people to sign up for the alerts were reporters for local public radio stations and newspapers.

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Image: An early feature of the app allowed users to be alerted to changes and updates in cases. After the launch, we realized we needed to change the system to better meet user needs.

However, we also realized we had some flaws in our system. In our initial thinking, users would be alerted to updates of specific cases. But there was more often new information about a campus than about an individual case. Focusing on individual cases would make it difficult to learn about related cases (say, multiple investigations at the same institution) that might well be relevant.

To fix that, we rebuilt the project. We added a tagging system to mark every college as public/private and by state, and every case with its status (active or resolved), its state, whether we had case files available, and other information.

We built a free API so that developers could easily gain access to our data and use it to build their own projects. Within two weeks of adding that feature, we’ve seen at least 200 people look into using it.

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Image: By creating a public API, we are encouraging other developers to link to our data to power their own projects.

And we rebuilt the email alert system so that a weekly update captures developments in all investigations. We now have nearly 1,200 people signed up for alerts, including scores of journalists.

The results have been good. We’ve seen dozens of news stories emanate from the tool, including an increasing number in which it appears to have served as an alert system for local journalists.

Such stories include the Indy Channel’s look at the three investigations at Indiana University at Bloomington.

We are pleased that this tool is serving the public by making it easier for journalists and others to monitor what is happening at colleges across the country.

Explore The Chronicle’s Title IX Tracker here.

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