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Oakland Police Beat applies data-driven investigative journalism in California

One of the explicit connections I’ve made over the years lies between data-driven investigative journalism and government or corporate accountability. In debugging the backlash to data journalism, I highlighted the work of The Los Angeles Times Data Desk, which has analyzed government performance data for accountability, among other notable projects. I could also have pointed to the Chicago Sun-Times, which applied data-driven investigative methods to determine that the City of Chicago’s 911 dispatch times vary widely depending on where you live, publishing an interactive map online for context, or to a Pulitzer Prize-winning story on speeding cops in Florida.

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This week, there’s a new experiment in applying data journalism to local government accountability in Oakland, California, where the Oakland Police Beat has gone online. The nonprofit website, which is part of Oakland Local and The Center for Media Change and funded by The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and The Fund for Investigative Journalism, was co-founded by Susan Mernit and Abraham Hyatt, the former managing editor of ReadWrite. (Disclosure: Hyatt edited my posts there.)

Oakland Police Beat is squarely aimed at shining sunlight on the practices of Oakland’s law enforcement officers. Their first story out of the gate is pulled no punches, finding that Oakland’s most decorated officers were responsible for a high number of brutality lawsuits and shootings.

The site also demonstrated two important practices that deserve to become standard in data journalism: explaining the methodology behind their analysis, including source notes, and (eventually) publishing the data behind the investigation.

To learn more about why Oakland Police Beat did that, how they’ve approach their work and what the long game is, I contacted Hyatt. Our interview follows, lightly edited and hyperlinked for context. Any [bracketed] comments are my own.

So, what exactly did you launch? What’s the goal?

Hyatt: We launched a news site and a database with 25 years worth of data about individual Oakland Police Department (OPD) officers who have been involved in shootings and misconduct lawsuits.

Oakland journalists usually focus (and rightfully so) on the city’s violent crime rate and the latest problems with the OPD. We started this project by asking if we could create a comprehensive picture of the officers with the most violent behavior, which is why the OPD is where it is today. We started requesting records and tracking down information. That eventually became the database. It’s the first time anyone in Oakland has created a resource like this.

What makes this “data-driven journalism?”

Hyatt: We started with the data and let it guide the course of the entire project. The stories we’ve written all came from the data.

Why is sharing the data behind the work important?

Hyatt: Sharing is critical. Sharing, not traffic, is the metric I’m using to gauge our success, although traffic certainly is fun to watch, too. That’s the main reason that we’re allowing people to download all of our data. (The settlement database will be available for download next week.)

How will journalists, activists, and data nerds use it over time? That’s going to be the indicator of how important this work was.

[Like ProPublica, Oakland Police Beat is encouraging reuse. The site says that “You’re welcome to republish our stories and use our data for free. We publish our stories under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License.”]

Where do you get the data?

Hyatt: All of it came from city and court documents. Some of it came as .CSV files, some as PDFs that we had to scrape.

How much time and effort did it take to ingest, clean, structure and present?

Hyatt: Almost all of the court docs had to be human-read. It was a laborious process of digging to find officer names and what the allegations were. Combining city settlement data records and court docs took close to five months. Then, we discovered that the city’s data had flaws and that took another couple of months to resolve.

Some of the data was surprisingly easy to get. I didn’t expect the City Attorney’s office to be so forthcoming with information. Other stuff was surprisingly difficult. The OPD refused to give us awards data before 2007. They claim that they didn’t keep that data on individual officers before then. I know that’s completely false, but we’re a tiny project. We don’t have the resources to take them to court over it. Our tools were very simple.

Did you pay for it?

Hyatt: We used PACER a ton. The bill was close to $900 by the time we were done. We mainly worked out of spreadsheets. I had a handful of command line tools that I used to clean and process data. I ran a virtual machine so that I could use some Linux-bases tools as well. I heart Open Refine. We experimented with using Git for version control on stories we were writing.

” A used chemical agent grenade found on the streets in downtown Oakland following Occupy demonstrations in 2011. Photo by Eric K Arnold.

Will you be publishing data, methodology as you went along?

Hyatt: The methodology post covers all of our stories. We’ll continue to publish stories, as well as some data sets that we got along the way that we decided not to put into our main dataset, like several hundred city attorney reports about the settled cases.

What’s the funding or revenue model for the site? Where will this be in one year? Or 5?

Hyatt: Everyone wants grant-funded journalism startups to be sustainable, but, so often, they start strong and then peter out when resources run dry.

Instead of following that model, I knew from the start that this was going to be a phased project. We had some great grants that got us started, but I didn’t know what the funding picture was going to look like once we started running stories. So, I tried to turn that limitation into a strength.

We’re publishing eight weeks worth of stories and data. We’re going to cram as much awesome into those weeks as we can and then, if needed, we can step away and let this project stand on its own.

With that said, we’re already looking for funding for a second phase (which will focus on teens and the OPD). When we get it, we’ll use this current data as a springboard for Phase 2.

Could this approach be extended to other cities?

Hyatt: The OPD and its problems are pretty unique in the USA. This was successful because there was so much stuff to work with in Oakland. I don’t think our mentality for creating and building this project was unique.