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Data Delver: Chase Davis, California Watch

Posted by on Feb 20, 2010 in Blog, CAR, data delvers | 2 Comments

My next Data Delver: By day, he’s an investigative reporter. By night, he’s Superman!  (Okay, he actually builds database applications with co-conspirator Matt Waite.  But that’s almost the same, right?)

The CAR world, as I see it, has two different paths you can go down: continue to use data for reporting stories, or apply those skills to web development and presenting data. The latter splits into front-end and back-end work as well.

If you’re indecisive like me, the best case scenario is to be able to use CAR for both reporting and building data apps, or at least, exercise careful control over where you direct your skills in different situations. That requires you be an excellent reporter and developer — it’s a tall order.  But one that California Watch’s Chase Davis meets with passion and skill.


This profile of Davis 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.


From AOL games to data journalism

While many CAR lovers come to the field via journalism, and then teach themselves the coding part, Davis was a coder before he knew he wanted to be a reporter.  He was adding extra levels and characters to AOL games with QBasic while he was in junior high.  Then, he fell into reporting in college and discovered he could combine the two to pursue his passion of investigative reporting.  “It offers one of the last new frontiers or opportunities, I think, to find stories that absolutely no one is finding, whether that be reporters, or regulators, or anybody else,” said Davis.

Davis has worked at a variety of news organizations from Boston to Houston, sometimes working as a reporter, sometimes as a CAR specialist, sometimes as a developer, but most often employing many of those skills at once.


Passionately pursuing investigative reporting

Davis uses his technical skills to find stories as an investigative reporter at California Watch.  He shares the Money and Politics beat with Lance Williams, who broke the Barry Bonds steroid story, has more of a historical perspective, said Davis, so together their strengths play off of each other. Davis meets sources in the field and does traditional reporting, but is also able to bring together database applications when needed for packages.

Navigating a spreadsheet should be a skill most reporters have under their belt, Davis said.  But there’s still a place for a specialist working with skills that are “a little bit trickier.”  For example, at California Watch, they are starting to use a technique called “machine learning,” which Davis said means “writing a program that can read documents, and find patterns in those documents that people wouldn’t otherwise see.”


The freedom to experiment

The openness to new ideas for presentation and reporting at California Watch is one of Davis’ favorite parts of his relatively new job. “There’s really no limit, no one’s putting handcuffs on us saying, ‘This is how it’s always been done,’ or any other barriers to any new idea that we have.  So we are pretty much free to do whatever we think could be cool, which is nice.”

That experimentation has included the crowdsourcing of a database.  And there’s more to come.  “We have really big plans for some things down the line that are going to be really exciting, and we’ll be pushing the boundaries of where some of this can go,” said Davis.


Users care about interacting with data

Davis said he’s found people to be extremely interested in this type of work. That’s partially because the stories are so new,and partially because of voyeuristic curiosity.  But, he thinks what people really like are data-driven applications that people can truly engage with.  “They like being able to go in and not just look up what their neighbor is making, but also being able to understand better context locally on any given issue that they’re interested in, by virtue of the database,” said Davis.


Take control of your skills

Audio: Exercise control over how you use your data and tech skills.Exercise control over how you use your data and tech skills.

Davis said having CAR skills of any sort, but especially you combine it with programming, is an extremely powerful and in-demand combination.  He gets calls every few weeks from editors and managers looking to fill CAR-related positions.

He said starting one’s career at a smaller newspaper, and trying to integrate CAR, can be difficult, and has seen that frustration play out among his colleagues when they don’t have ample software, time or support.

But there are many opportunities where people do understand the skill set, and if you have the skills, then it’s up to you how you best want to use them.

“I think the trick is to get to know the people in the community,” said Davis.  “There are so few people who know how to do this stuff, and so many openings, and so much demand, that this is really the one position in journalism, at least that I can think of right now, where they can’t fill the jobs fast enough.”


Extended transcript

Read on to learn about a recent California Watch experiment tapping into community involvement, and more of Davis’ thoughts on the future of CAR.


What is it you do at California Watch?

We are a team of six reporters,three editors, and two multimedia producers, we’re going to hire a couple more reporters, I think, in the next few months. We’re split into two groups. We have the main office down in Berkeley, and I’m in the bureau up here in Sacramento. I cover money and politics issues, along with Lance Williams who came from the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the guy who broke the Barry Bonds steroid story, and he has been doing California politics coverage longer than I’ve been alive. He also has more of a historical perspective, and I have more of the technical skills, so we’re able to play off of each other in that regard.

On my typical day, I go into the office and I report, for the most part. My job is to be an investigative reporter here more so than a developer or CAR person. We have a guy on staff who is amazing with that kind of stuff, his name is Agustin Armendariz. He comes from the San Diego Union Tribune, and used to work for the Center for Public Integrity for a long time. He does sort of the day-to-day heavy lifting on data stuff. I just got back half an hour ago from a lunch with a source, just doing what the standard investigative reporter does. I try to incorporate data analysis into the stories I’m working on. I’ve got something coming out in a couple of weeks that’ll have some interactive databases and applications going with it. We had a story that I did a couple of weeks ago that had the same, and so we sort of try to incorporate it.


What are some of the differences between the work you are doing at California Watch, and what you did in Des Moines?

Des Moines, actually not much. I was also a reporter there for the most part, I was also the CAR specialist there, I suppose. The charge there was more writing stories than it was doing analysis work for others. The difference here, I suppose, other than the structure of the organization, is that I’m on the beat of money and politics now, whereas in Des Moines I was just on the investigative desk, I worked on environment stuff, and some other things.


Can you take me through your career and some of the other positions you’ve had, and tell me how you got started?

I went to Mizzou, and did internships every summer that I was there, it ended up being six internships, and one was in the fall or the winter. I started off at a small weekly in Minneapolis, then I went to Iowa, then to Omaha, St. Pete briefly for a little special thing we worked out over winter break, then to Milwaukee, and then Boston. About halfway through that time I started working at NICAR in the database library, just kind of on a lark, I didn’t know where that would actually take me. I knew how to program in a handful of languages, and I had some experience with databases, and so they let me come on there, first as a volunteer, and then as a paid staff member. So I worked with them for a couple years, sort of doing data analysis and cleanup.  And then, the Boston thing was an extended internship where I actually went to Boston for about five months doing night cops reporting for the most part. But then after that, I stayed on remotely for another six months or so, just sort of helping out with the various stories with the Romney campaign, when he was gearing up for his presidential run, doing sort of data analysis, and things like that, for the political reporters. I got hired in Houston, worked at the Chronicle for a couple of years, on their investigative desk as their CAR specialist, and then from Houston, I went to Des Moines for what ended up being a very short amount of time – about nine months—before this offer came up, and now I’m here.


What drew you to CAR in the first place?

I come to CAR from a weird background in that I knew how to do computer programming and all that before I knew I wanted to be a reporter. I learned how to program in fifth or sixth grade. I was in a summer school class, and then spent my junior high years sequestered in my basement modifying QBasic games that I downloaded off of AOL, adding new characters and new levels. I thought I wanted to do computer stuff before I wanted to be a reporter, but then I fell into the reporting thing, and then I kind of discovered about halfway through college that there was a way to combine those two.

It was attractive to me in large part because it was a window, or gateway, into investigative reporting, which is what I’d been interested in in journalism. Also, because it offers one of the last new frontiers or opportunities, I think, to find stories that absolutely no one is finding, whether that be reporters, or regulators, or anybody else. Most people don’t have the technical expertise to sort of pursue a lot of these stories, and so it’s really just fertile ground and stuff that nobody has ever looked at – you can find new stuff every day.


Where do you see the future of CAR?

I think everyone’s going to have to be required to do some of it. If you can’t navigate a spreadsheet, at some point that’s going to become a hindrance to your career as a reporter, especially as more public records are put into electronic form. But I think that there’s always going to be a role for the specialist in that, because not everybody is going to know how to program, not everybody is going to know how to do some of the higher level stuff, nor should everybody have to know how to do that. It really only serves you in certain situations. I think that everyone’s going to have to learn more about how to do analysis, but still, there’s going to be a role for people who know an exceptional amount, and can do some of the things that are a little bit trickier.


What are some of the skills that you consider to be trickier?

A lot of schools are doing a good job now teaching the basics of Access and Excel. I taught a CAR class, for example, at the University of Houston, where we walked people through just how to do basic stuff in Access and Excel. If you were confronted with a database or a spreadsheet, you’d at least know what to do with it. Mapping used to be the classic example of the next step, but not a lot of people are going to have to know how to use that. But it’s going to be good to have someone in the newsroom who can, if the occasion arises.

Anything related to programming – it’s going to be good for a reporter to pick up at least some bit of programming, but I don’t think that’s feasible for all reporters to sort of have a background in that. Building online applications will still probably require some specialization. Even complicated analysis. If you look at something like Matt Waite’s Wetlands, you can’t just expect an average reporter to do that, with satellite analysis and all that.

We’re starting to work now on stuff here that relates to machine learning. It’s basically writing a program that can read documents, and find patterns in those documents that people wouldn’t otherwise see. People shouldn’t be expected to have to do those things to be able to report, so long as you have someone around who specializes in it, you can keep sort of pushing that and keep finding your stories that way.


How interested have you found readers to be in this type of work?

Extremely. I think there’s two sides to that. One is the novelty of the stories that come out of this and the fact that it’s something the readers haven’t read before. It’s not just reading the same-old, same-old campaign finance report story, so-and-so raised the most whatever. You’re revealing new patterns that people haven’t seen and would be interested in.

The other is the online component that’s come along in the last few years of posting these databases online, and not just data ghetto-style databases, as Matt [Waite] would call them, but more like real interactive web applications, like Politifact. There’s the voyeuristic aspect on the one hand, where people just want to see what their neighbors make, if you’ve got a neighbor that’s a state employee, and you’ve got a state salary database up, and that’s for the cheap, cotton candy-style hit. You go and you look it up once, and you’ve satisfied your voyeuristic desires, and now you can just be on your way. But then there’s stuff that Matt builds, and we build on our site, and those are designed for more engagement, and those are the types of things I think the readers really like, being able to go in and not just look up what their neighbor is making, but also being able to understand better context locally on any given issue that they’re interested in, by virtue of the database.


How is California Watch utilizing the Web to convey information? How do the reporters integrate with the Web team?

Well, we have two multimedia producers, and we have Augie, the CAR guy, and we have me. Our Web site, we actually contracted out for that. But, the plan is to use it in whatever creative ways we possibly can. The nice thing about working here is there’s really no limit, no one’s putting handcuffs on us saying, “This is how it’s always been done,” or any other barriers to any new idea that we have. So we are pretty much free to do whatever we think could be cool, which is nice. So, we started off with a data ghetto-type page, with a bunch of searchable databases in different topic areas, which people have used actually quite a bit. We tried a little crowdsourcing experiment with an online database earlier on this month that’s gotten results, and we have really big plans for some things down the line that are going to be really exciting, and we’ll be pushing the boundaries of where some of this can go.


A few weeks ago, California Watch staff went out to coffee shops to hear from people in the community. How did that go?

I kind of had a weird day that day. I went to the coffee shop for an hour and a half, two hours, that morning. It was a coffee shop where all of my sources go anyway, so I ran into a lot of them, and they were familiar with the idea. One person made it a point to sort of come and talk to me, he was a political operative here who knew we were doing this, so he made it a point to come up and say hi. But most of the people I ran into were people I already knew. But then I also went down that same day to a public library in Lodi, Calif., which is about half an hour, forty-five minutes south of Sacramento, and did a talk for both the local newspaper and people from the community who wanted to know what we were about, and just generally know about politics issues. At that one, other than the local newspaper, we probably had maybe a half-dozen community members, including a local city councilman and some other folks who showed up, and had a real interest in what we were doing.


Do you have any advice on getting into the field, or deciding what part of computer-assisted reporting to specialize in?

You can do whatever you want with the skills. In my day job, I’ve taken more of a reporting angle, rather than wanting to create database applications, I use the skills as a reporting tool to find new stories. In my night job, I build Web sites with Matt, so it’s sort of like I have both sides. In general, I’ve looked at this more as a way to enhance my reporting, and to find stories that other people can’t. But other people have chosen to go the other route, and use it as a way to visualize data, and those types of things. You’re going to find, when you start working for a newspaper, and they see that you can do this, they’ll be inclined to stereotype you as the “data geek” who can’t write. And that’s a frustration that I’ve had in the past, not by my bosses, my bosses have all been totally cool with it, but other people in the newsroom that don’t know you as well. If someone has a simple math problem or something, they’ll want to run it by you, and have you double-check it, because you’re the numbers person. Pushing back against that, to some extent, has been a really important thing in my career, to not fall into something I didn’t want to fall into using these skills, just cause I have these skills. You can take them and do whatever you want with them. You just have to be persistent, and figure out what you want.

As far as how to get started, you’ll have a number of difficulties if you start at a super-small newspaper. You won’t have software, you won’t have time, you won’t have other people around you, unless you pick the right place, who understand what you’re bringing to the table. I think that’s a frustration for a lot of people I know of who started in smaller places. Of course, it depends on the place. There are some places where they want to have those skills, some of them are actually creating CAR desks at the small newspapers, because they really understand the value. But if you end up in a place, whether it’s big or small, that doesn’t understand the value of what you bring, then you’re not going to be able to grow as well. I think there’s a lot of people out there now, at big papers and at organizations like ours, who are looking to fill that niche. Every few weeks, someone calls me asking if I know of anybody who can fill whatever CAR position at whatever newspaper, and I know I’m not the only one who gets those calls. So there’s plenty of openings out there for that, and so I think the trick there is to get to know the people in the community.

There are so few people who know how to do this stuff, and so many openings, and so much demand, that this is really the one position in journalism, at least that I can think of right now, where they can’t fill the jobs fast enough.

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