Profile of the Data Journalist: The Homicide Watch

Chris Amico and Laura Norton Amico's project started as a spreadsheet. Now it's a community news platform.

Around the globe, the bond between data and journalism is growing stronger. In an age of big data, the growing importance of data journalism lies in the ability of its practitioners to provide context, clarity and, perhaps most important, find truth in the expanding amount of digital content in the world. In that context, data journalism has profound importance for society.

To learn more about the people who are doing this work and, in some cases, building the newsroom stack for the 21st century, I conducted in-person and email interviews during the 2012 NICAR Conference and published a series of data journalist profiles here at Radar.

Chris Amico (@eyeseast) is a journalist and web developer based in Washington, DC, where he works on NPR’s State Impact project, building a platform for local reporters covering issues in their states. Laura Norton Amico (@LauraNorton) is the editor of Homicide Watch (@HomicideWatch), an online community news platform in Washington, D.C. that aspires to cover every homicide in the District of Columbia. And yes, the similar names aren’t a coincidence: the Amicos were married in 2010.

Since Homicide Watch launched in 2009, it’s been earning praise and interest from around the digital world, including a profile by the Nieman Lab at Harvard University that asked whether a local blog “could fill the gaps of DC’s homicide coverage. Notably, Homicide Watch has turned up a number of unreported murders.

In the process, the site has also highlighted an important emerging set of data that other digital editors should consider: using inbound search engine analytics for reporting. As Steve Myers reported for the Poynter Institute, Homicide Watch used clues in site search queries to ID a homicide victim. We’ll see if the Knight Foundation think this idea has legs: the husband and wife team have applied for a Knight News Challenge grant to build a tooklit for real-time investigative reporting from site analytics.

The Amico’s success with the site – which saw big growth in 2011 — offers an important case study into why organizing beats may well hold similar importance as investigative projects. It also will be a case study with respect to sustainability and business models for the “new news,”as Homicide Watch looks to license its platform to news outlets across the country.

Where do you work now? What is a day in your life like?

Laura: I work full time right now for Homicide Watch, a database driven beat publishing platform for covering homicides. Our flagship site is in DC, and I’m the editor and primary reporter on that site as well as running business operations for the brand.

My typical days start with reporting. First, news checks, and maybe posting some quick posts on anything that’s happened overnight. After that, it’s usually off to court to attend hearings and trials, get documents, reporting stuff. I usually have to to-do list for the day that includes business meetings, scheduling freelancers, mapping out long-term projects, doing interviews about the site, managing our accounting, dealing with awards applications, blogging about the start-up data journalism life on my personal blog and for ONA at journalists.org, guest teaching the occasional journalism class, and meeting deadlines for freelance stories. The work day never really ends; I’m online keeping an eye on things until I go to bed.

Chris: I work for NPR, on the State Impact project, where I build news apps and tools for journalists. With Homicide Watch, I work in short bursts, usually an hour before dinner and a few hours after. I’m a night owl, so if I let myself, I’ll work until 1 or 2 a.m., just hacking at small bugs on the site. I keep a long list of little things I can fix, so I can dip into the codebase, fix something and deploy it, then do something else. Big features, like tracking case outcomes, tend to come from weekend code sprints.

How did you get started in data journalism? Did you get any special degrees or certificates?

Laura: Homicide Watch DC was my first data project. I’ve learned everything I know now from conceiving of the site, managing it as Chris built it, and from working on it. Homicide Watch DC started as a spreadsheet. Our start-up kit for newsrooms starting Homicide Watch sites still includes filling out a spreadsheet. The best lesson I learned when I was starting out was to find out what all the pieces are and learn how to manage them in the simplest way possible.

Chris: My first job was covering local schools in southern California, and data kept creeping into my beat. I liked having firm answers to tough questions, so I made sure I knew, for example, how many graduates at a given high school met the minimum requirements for college. California just has this wealth of education data available, and when I started asking questions of the data, I got stories that were way more interesting.

I lived in Dalian, China for a while. I helped start a local news site with two other expats (Alex Bowman and Rick Martin). We put everything we knew about the city — restaurant reviews, blog posts, photos from Flickr — into one big database and mapped it all. It was this awakening moment when suddenly we had this resource where all the information we had was interlinked. When I came back to California, I sat down with a book on Python and Django and started teaching myself to code. I spent a year freelancing in the Bay Area, writing for newspapers by day, learning Python by night. Then the NewsHour hired me.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources they shared with you?

Laura: Chris really coached me through the complexities of data journalism when we were creating the site. He taught me that data questions are editorial questions. When I realized that data could be discussed as an editorial approach, it opened the crime beat up. I learned to ask questions of the information I was gathering in a new way.

Chris: My education has been really informal. I worked with a great reporter at my first job, Bob Wilson, who is a great interviewer of both people and spreadsheets. At NewsHour, I worked with Dante Chinni on Patchwork Nation, who taught me about reporting around a central organizing principle. Since I’ve started coding, I’ve ended up in this great little community of programmer-journalists where people bound ideas around and help each other out.

What does your personal data journalism “stack” look like? What tools could you not live without?

Laura: The site itself and its database which I report to and from, WordPress, WordPress analytics, Google Analytics, Google Calendar, Twitter, Facebook, Storify, Document Cloud, VINElink, and DC Superior Court’s online case lookup.

Chris: Since I write more Python than prose these days, I spend most of my time in a text editor (usually TextMate) on a MacBook Pro. I try not to do anything without git.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or creating?

Laura: Homicide Watch is the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s not just about the data, and it’s not just about the journalism, but it’s about meeting a community need in an innovative way. I stared thinking about a Homicide Watchtype site when I was trying to follow a few local cases shortly after moving to DC. It was nearly impossible to find news sources for the information. I did find that family and friends of victims and suspects were posting newsy updates in unusual places — online obituaries and Facebook memorial pages, for example. I thought a lot about how a news product could fit the expressed need for news, information, and a way for the community to stay in touch about cases.

The data part developed very naturally out of that. The earliest description of the site was “everything a reporter would have in their notebook or on their desk while covering a murder case from start to finish.” That’s still one of the guiding principals of the site, but it’s also meant that organizing that information is super important. What good is making court dates public if you’re not doing it on a calendar, for example.

We started, like I said, with a spreadsheet that listed everything we knew: victim name, age, race, gender, method of death, place of death, link to obituary, photo, suspect name, age, race, gender, case status, incarceration status, detective name, age, race, gender, phone number, judge assigned to case, attorneys connected to the case, co-defendants, connections to other murder cases.

And those are just the basics. Any reporter covering a murder case, crime to conviction, should have that information. What Homicide Watch does is organize it, make as much of it public as we can, and then report from it. It’s led to some pretty cool work, from developing a method to discover news tips in analytics, to simply building news packages that accomplish more than anyone else can.

Chris: Homicide Watch is really the project I wanted to build for years. It’s data-driven beat reporting, where the platform and the editorial direction are tightly coupled. In a lot of ways, it’s what I had in mind when I was writing about frameworks for reporting.

The site is built to be a crime reporter’s toolkit. It’s built around the way Laura works, based on our conversations over the dinner table for the first six months of the site’s existence. Building it meant understanding the legal system, doing reporting and modeling reality in ways I hadn’t done before, and that was a challenge on both the technical and editorial side.

Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

Laura: Assigning myself new projects and tasks is the best way for me to learn; it forces me to find solutions for what I want to do. I’m not great at seeking out resources on my own, but I keep a close eye on Twitter for what others are doing, saying about it, and reading.

Chris: Part of my usual morning news reading is a run through a bunch of programming blogs. I try to get exposed to technologies that have no immediate use to me, just so it keeps me thinking about other ways to approach a problem and to see what other problems people are trying to solve.

I spend a lot of time trying to reverse-engineer other people’s projects, too. Whenever someone launches a new news app, I’ll try to find the data behind it, take a dive through the source code if it’s available and generally see if I can reconstruct how it came together.

Why are data journalism and “news apps” important, in the context of the contemporary digital environment for information?

Laura: Working on Homicide Watch has taught me that news is about so much more than “stories.” If you think about a typical crime brief, for example, there’s a lot of information in there, starting with the “who-what-where-when.” Once that brief is filed and published, though, all of that information disappears.

Working with news apps gives us the ability to harness that information and reuse/repackage it. It’s about slicing our reporting in as many ways as possible in order to make the most of it. On Homicide Watch, that means maintaining a database and creating features like victims’ and suspects’ pages. Those features help regroup, refocus, and curate the reporting into evergreen resources that benefit both reporters and the community.

Chris: Spend some time with your site analytics. You’ll find that there’s no one thing your audience wants. There isn’t even really one audience. Lots of people want lots of different things at different times, or at least different views of the information you have.

One of our design goals with Homicide Watch is “never hit a dead end.” A user may come in looking for information about a certain case, then decide she’s curious about a related issue, then wonder which cases are closed. We want users to be able to explore what we’ve gathered and to be able to answer their own questions. Stories are part of that, but stories are data, too.

tags: , , , , , , , ,