The political junkie’s pastime of obsessively following Barack Obama’s movements took a more quantitative turn this week, as The Washington Post launched a new digital feature called the POTUS Tracker. Presented with the tagline “Analyzing Obama’s Schedule,” the feature essentially compiles events listed on the daily White House agenda (supplemented by occasional news reports) into one searchable database, tagging them by type, location, issue discussed, and attendees present. It can tell you, among many other things, how many town halls Obama has held since taking office. (Twenty-one.) Or how many times Hillary Clinton has joined the president for events dedicated to “social issues.” (Twice—the National Prayer Service a day after his inauguration, and an anniversary celebration for the Americans with Disabilities Act in July.) Or, for that matter, how often Obama’s schedule has included golf. (Nine times.)
You could argue that this sort of exhaustive focus on the White House exacerbates the widespread belief that the president is more powerful than he actually is. And, as with all large amalgamations of data, it’s important not to be too impressed by the sense of comprehensiveness or certainty it conveys. Still, a dose of quantitative, data-oriented thinking can be a helpful corrective to our subjective impressions about Obama’s priorities. “This is a huge way we can add value to the debate, synthesizing and analyzing information,” said graphics editor Karen Yourish, one of the Post employees who helped create the tracker.
In a phone conversation Monday, Yourish and graphic artist/cartographer/Web guru Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso shared their thoughts about what the feature achieves and how it might be improved. The idea for the tracker, Yourish said, originated in a conversation that began shortly after the election, when a group of Post staffers started thinking about how to cover the new president. “To a certain extent, there were some missed opportunities in aggregating data from the Bush presidency, because data-based reporting and presentation on the Web hadn’t yet evolved to the point where we do things we can do now,” she said.
That conversation led to an “accountability” series that launched earlier this year with the Post’s Head Count feature, which tracks the president’s appointments. POTUS Tracker is the second installment; a third, focusing on the use of executive orders, is slated to launch in the fall.
Part of the motivation in compiling POTUS Tracker was simply to address a sense of competitive disadvantage. Mark Knoller of CBS News is known for having the best database on presidential schedules, Yourish said, but it’s not publicly available, and there was a sense in the newsroom of, “Why should we have to rely on somebody else?” But there was also a feeling that if the information was going to be collected, it should be presented to readers. That, in turn, meant devoting a lot more time to the data. “We had to fight pretty hard to turn it into something that could be used by the public,” Yourish said. In total, nine people worked on the project over the course of two months.
One of the most time-consuming tasks was wrestling the data, which can vary depending on which White House employee is compiling the day’s schedule, into a standardized format. Beyond the decisions about how to categorize events, mundane issues like people’s names—should the program refer to the senior senator from Massachusetts as “Edward” or “Ted”?—had to be sorted out. “People are always asking, ‘Why don’t you put this out to the public?’” Yourish said. But the problem with crowd-sourcing a database, she said, is that “you can’t really analyze data unless it’s standardized in some way.” Each new daily schedule is manually input by Post employees, who also categorize the events and review the attendees.
The result of that labor is an easy-to-use resource that is impressively broad but, for the moment, not very deep. Click through to a specific event—say, Obama’s April 30 remarks on troubled automakers GM and Chrylser—and you’ll get a link to the White House transcript, but no connection to the Post’s own coverage, to say nothing of other media outlets’ coverage.
A more powerful way of separating important events from insignificant ones would also be nice, though the tracker does allow users to filter events by type (dropping “Recreation,” for example, or selecting only “Fundraisers.”). In addition, more ways to display the information graphically—tracking the ebb and flow of an issue, or an attendee, over time—would be helpful.
Going forward, some or all of those issues may be addressed. Yourish already has them on her wish list. Kelso, meanwhile, said he hopes to find a way to synthesize the various databases the Post is developing. The next big challenge, he said, is “How do you link it all together?”
It’s a good question, and one that should yield fruitful results. Whatever the limits of these early efforts, this is creativity worth supporting.