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Data Delver: Lisa Pickoff-White, California Watch

While talking to data reporters from around the country, it’s become apparent to me that the best work is done when the staff is supportive.  Some newspapers are doing great work, and some are struggling.  Which led me to wonder how the investigative organizations are doing, new and encouraging experimentation to draw eyes and inform readers.  I’ve been impressed with the rapid emergence of California Watch on to the field and find it almost difficult to believe how much they’ve accomplished in the month or so they’ve been live.

Recently, California Watch ran a package on the profitability of DUI checkpoints that did an exceptional job of making the most of the Web and allowing for multiple levels of exploration by incorporating a graphic, map, video and text.  Multimedia Producer Lisa Pickoff-White took the time to chat with me and answer some of my questions about her work, the organization and share her thoughts about the industry of journalistic data visualizations.

This profile of Pickoff-White is a part of my continuing series I’m calling “Data Delvers,” where I pass on summaries, quotes and audio clips from conversations with journalists using technology to find, analyze and convey data-driven stories and/or projects to the modern audience.

California Watch’s workflow

Pickoff-White said the various stories are assigned, and it’s up to them to decide what the best fit for the story is.  She said she knew she wanted to do a map, because she wanted to demostrate trends of where certain checkpoints were clustering in certain regions of California.  She felt that the readers could at least get that out of it if they only looked at it for ten seconds.  But if they wanted to delve deeper, they could get more information about any checkpoint by clicking on it. But then there were just two levels, very broad, and very detailed. She wanted to pull focus to the cities with the five highest impound rates, and also visually demonstrate just how many cars were being impounded.  That’s where the interactive graphic comes in as a sort of middle ground.

The advantages and concerns of non-profit status

Sustainability is a constant concern for the not-for-profit organizations, that Pickoff-White said she thinks about often. She said it’s important that users spend time with her work, and are able to understand the story.  As part of this goal, she said one of the best classes she took at Berkeley was one in interface design.

But one of her favorite parts of working at California Watch is the collaboration.  “Everyone’s so engaged and really excited to be here,” she said.  “You know we all want to be working on every story.”

She collaborates closely with fellow multimedia producer, Mark Luckie, who also edits the journalism and technology blog 10,000 Words.  Pickoff-White also collaborates often with Agustin Armendariz, the computer-assisted reporting specialist at California Watch.

Transitioning to multimedia work

For several years, Pickoff-White worked as a reporter, seeing herself as a data geek who did stories based on politics, budgets, science and technology among other topics.  But she went to graduate journalism school at Berkeley to pursue multimedia, coming to California Watch soon after graduation.

“I’ve always been someone who thinks very visually,” she said, “and I wanted to bring that to my journalism.”

Experiments can be risky

She said she feels lucky that she can experiment at California Watch, but at the same time, she feels very responsible for the traffic numbers the work receives.  It’s important to her that people are looking at and engaging with her interactives.

She cited an example from Berkeley where she was part of a team that made a piece exploring donors to Obama’s presidential campaign with many different features and lots of ways people could explore information.  It was posted on the hyperlocal sites Mission L@cal and Oakland North, but didn’t get much traffic.  In contrast, she later worked on a piece that featured a game with some short videos, and required the user to do only one or two things.  She said it did a lot better.

“I think the key lesson is simplicity,” said Pickoff-White.

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Many Eyes: “Catalyzing the community around data” » »