When Data Talks

This week, the most talked about map in New York City isn’t one that directs tourists to new museum shows or sample sales.  It shows where the guns are.  


On Monday, the WNYC Data News Team released a new interactive map  that documents the NYPD’s stop and frisks in 2011.   One of the main objectives of the controversial practice of stopping and frisking is to get guns off the streets.  Block-by-block the map charts more than 685,000 police stops including the 770 that resulted in gun recoveries.  The map shows that the actual guns were not being recovered in “stop and frisk hot spots.”   It’s an interesting discovery that is relevant to the social discourse on the police practice.  In this case, data is telling a part of a bigger, more complex story.

WNYC has been examining the stop and frisk practice for months now and it goes well beyond the issue of gun control.  It involves issues of race, economics, privacy and public safety.   WNYC’s Ailsa Chang won a duPont-Columbia Award for her investigative series on the use of stop and frisks in marijuana arrests.   Data was a main character in the story.  Through data visualization and mapping, WNYC’s Data News Team brought the investigative work to life in a whole new way and gave citizens the tools they needed to discover new insights and draw their own conclusions.   Simply put, data is helping us do our jobs better as journalists.  It’s helping us uncover truths, keep governments accountable and it is facilitating conversations about the issues we face in our communities every day.  We need to be doing more with it.

Data analysis is a tremendously powerful journalistic tool, yet it’s vastly underutilized in American newsrooms.  This is a disservice to citizens and the art form of journalism.  It’s ironic when you think about it.  In the age of big data, fewer resources are being allocated to true accountability journalism.  I think – now more than ever – we need to be focusing on this type of journalism.  It’s our responsibility as journalists to do in-depth and ambitious coverage that is not afraid to dive deep into things like data and to follow every angle no matter where it takes us.  

Looking back, it’s easy to say the signs of the financial collapse of 2008 were all there in plain sight.  They were in annual reports, government filings, quarterly statements and other public records.  We just didn’t have enough feet-on-the-ground connecting the data point dots.  The crisis serves as a salient example of the need for a strong, thorough and vigilant press – always.   

In 2011, WNYC launched a dedicated data reporting unit headed by our former Executive Producer for WNYC News John Keefe.  The Data News Team has utilized data visualization and mapping to cover transportation issues, economic issues and to disseminate news and information in the service of public safety.  Last August when Hurricane Irene came to town, our data visualization team created an evacuation zone map that enabled residents to type in their addresses and plan their evacuations.  In the spirit of public media, we always create these tools so that they are easily embeddable on other sites and can be shared with audiences beyond our own. 

In the coming months, WNYC’s Data New Team will be working on projects around the elections.  They’ll be analyzing crucial issues at play in the race for the White House and tracking campaign contributions for New York’s next mayoral race.   They will be reporting the stories as the data tells them.  Click here to see work from WNYC’s Data News Team, and visit the team blog, where they share the raw data and their processes along with great examples from other news organizations.

Through a series of essays, Laura Walker, President and CEO of New York Public Radio, explores the role of media, stories that make you think and content that just deserves a shout out.