The best and worst of this week’s data journalism

A cool side project tracking taxi rides, and a quest to find the bowling center of the country

Chris Whong—a self-proclaimed urbanist, mapmaker, and data junkie—filed a Freedom of Information request that resulted in acquiring information about all 170 million taxi rides that occurred in New York City in 2013. He created a beautiful map visualization out of it that went live early Monday morning, tracking how many passengers cab drivers picked up for 30 randomly chosen days, their fares and tips.

Whong also made public the 18.7 gigabytes of data he received from his FOIA request and said it could be used to analyze anything from how passengers give tips to how the city can find a better balance of yellow cabs. In an email interview, Whong insisted his work wasn’t journalism, as it was merely a side project by an “interested citizen.” But he did acknowledge that the project and data set have some journalistic overlap: to explain something interesting (how taxi usage changes by time of day) or even to affect change, possibly by rebalancing the number or the location of yellow cabs. “There are endless possibilities,” he said. Whong gets a LAUREL, not only for creating a mesmerizing data visualization, but also for recognizing there’s more that can be done with that data.

Bloomberg Businessweek explored the use of swear words by CEOs of publicly owned companies. After a May 5 conference call with analysts in which the CEO of Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. used profanity then apologized, the magazine reviewed thousands of such calls since 2004 to see how often heads of companies swear publicly. The raw numbers actually aren’t that high—CEOs at companies that hold these calls have only used such words 254 times in the past decade. (For the curious, the S-word was used in three quarters of those cases.) What the author points out is that the use of swear words rose in the aftermath of the recession and ebbed as the economy became stronger. There may be a correlation there, but causation is difficult to conclude. The 254 swear words counted aren’t much, and the number could easily fluctuate with the addition of even one crude CEO at any relevant company. The data-based approach to covering potty talk definitely proves interesting, but the numbers don’t convincingly prove that the use of four-letter words is connected to the economic climate. As fun as this story and its accompanying infographic were, the overall project merits a DART.

Last week, a Time magazine piece reported that the federal government is seeking bids to overhaul the White House bowling alley. After an ensuing uproar about the potential cost led the plans to be dropped, The Washington Post’s Wonkblog worked to find out how bowling’s popularity might have changed and where in America that popularity might be strongest. Two line graphs show that bowling popularity has dwindled over the years: a Google Trends graph and a graph culling business data from the census from 1986 to 2012. On the question of where bowling is popular, Wonkblog created an interactive map that offers two ways of visualizing the number of bowling centers in each American county: the actual count and the number of bowling alleys per capita. The maps created for this story illustrate that while Los Angeles County may have the most places to bowl, the true center of bowling popularity is in the center of the country, where there are more places to bowl per person. Offering both versions of this data helps illustrate something often missing in data journalism—raw numbers can be interesting, but comparisons can only be done by accounting for differences, in this case population. A LAUREL to Wonkblog for taking that into account.

In the last several weeks, there has been quite a bit of coverage of the 52,000 migrant Central American children who have crossed the United States border since October. In an explainer feature, The New York Times’ Haeyoun Park sliced the data to show where the children came from, where they got through the border, and when they reached the United States, accompanied by multiple clear maps and graphs. This piece gets a LAUREL for using data in an effective and comprehensive way to inform readers.

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Tanveer Ali is a Chicago-based journalist who is Chicago's data reporter and social media producer. He has reported for the Chicago News Cooperative, WBEZ, and GOOD Magazine, among others. A former staff writer at the Detroit News, he received a master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism.