The Gift of Data

Dec 25 2009

One of the more challenging and interesting projects at work lately has been the work we’ve done on the Toxic Waters series by Charles Duhigg. Since the stories have explored water quality throughout the United States, the web component accompanying some of the stories have been national in scope as well. You can’t provide locally relevant information for a mass audience in a story, even one of Timesian length.

That constraint - which still exists on the web, albeit it less so than for print publications - makes it easier to justify working with hundreds of thousands or millions of rows of data to build an interface that allows readers to find out about polluters or drinking water systems close to them.

These kinds of apps aren’t easy; the hardest part is the interface, for which Tyson Evans and Matt Bloch deserve the credit for the water series. But the difference between those apps and the “data ghetto” kind of app that provides a search box and not much else is more than time and talent. In some cases, it’s less a “nice-to-have” than a must-have. Earlier this month, Duhigg and Griff Palmer wrote a powerful piece showing that millions of Americans are drinking contaminated water. A great story, but check out the first dozen or so comments by readers. Half of them asked for a list of drinking water systems or a map or some other way to find out if their local systems were providing unhealthy water. That app accompanied the story published later in December.

Readers aren’t dumb; they want to know what we know, and they know that the web makes it possible for us to share with them at a national and even local level. The level of commitment and effort that we put into responding to their need for relevant and meaningful information will go a long way towards building a better relationship with them. The kind of web application that provides a summary of millions of records requires a different approach from, say, a lookup of government employees. But that doesn’t necessarily mean less effort and thought, just a willingness to treat both in a manner that respects the unique characteristics of each. So as we are in the season of gift-giving, all of us - myself included - need to think more about what we’re really giving to our readers when we post data on the web.