United States Project

At one Virginia paper, coders and reporters unite to make sense of government data

May 26, 2015

These days, Wednesday evenings in the Daily Press newsroom in Newport News, VA, mean pizza. And data. Lots and lots of data. The paper, which recently moved from a 1960s building to new digs at City Center, has been opening its office up for monthly meetings of the local chapter of Code for America, a national nonprofit that builds open-source technology designed to make government more transparent and responsive.

Code for America is perhaps best known for its work with city officials. But in Newport News, where the group’s volunteers decided last fall that they could fulfill their mission by working with the local newspaper, a project to circumvent an open-records obstacle has turned into what may become a lasting partnership—one that arrived at a good time for the Daily Press.

“I’ve been trying to get a database person in the newsroom for a long time,” said Marisa Porto, the paper’s editor and vice president of content. But she has struggled to make a hire for her relatively small newsroom, she said; skilled coders can get opportunities in bigger communities. Like many papers its size, the Daily Press can use all the programming help it can get.

As Daily Press reporter Dave Ress told me: “I have zippo code skills.”

That’s where Code for America comes in. Founded in 2009, the group encourages coders who apply for a fellowship to take a year off from their corporate jobs and serve in one of about 10 local governments around the country that change each year and also have to apply; these civic hackers have created everything from bus-tracking apps in Detroit to apps connecting residents to city services in Honolulu.

There are also volunteer brigades across the US. In Virginia, Ben Schoenfeld was one such volunteer. And last fall, while he’d been helping a local government with coding—he built an app involving restaurant health inspections—Schoenfeld heard that Ress, of the Daily Press, was looking for some tech help. The reporter was interested in looking for patterns in criminal plea deals throughout Virginia, but had hit a public records roadblock. The Office of the Executive Secretary of Virginia’s court system, which used to release a court records database containing the information Ress was seeking, decided to stop making that database public.

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The underlying documents were still public, of course. But that meant the reporter would have to gather the information himself, going county by county, court record by court record, to effectively recreate the database.

“The more they didn’t want to give [the database] to us, I’m afraid the more I wanted it,” Ress told me. But he didn’t know how to compile the database himself.

As it turned out, Schoenfeld could help. He wrote a script fairly quickly that crawled through each public case file in each county in Virginia, scraping the data from court records and dumping it into a spreadsheet. He ran the program every day for two weeks and ended up with a file of compiled data from more than 110,000 cases throughout Virginia for the year 2014. Schoenfeld had also created a web portal where anyone can search for a defendant by name across more than 100 circuit courts in the commonwealth.

“Somehow it felt like magic to me,” Ress says. After analyzing the data he published a story for the Daily Press in February. The lede: “When it’s time to strike a plea bargain, African Americans have had less luck than whites in reducing charges.”

In Virginia, Ress found, whites are twice as likely to get reduced sentences than blacks, are twice as likely to get plea deals for domestic assault, and are much more successful at pleading to reduced charges for robbery and drug possession. The reporting led former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of any state, to call the findings “shocking.”

The story, Ress told me, wouldn’t have been written without the partnership. It’s “a great kind of natural alliance,” he said.

Since then, the Daily Press has been eager to develop that alliance further. Local Code for America volunteers have moved their monthly meetings from a public library to the paper’s newsroom, where they pow-wow with the journalists over pizza. Anywhere from a dozen to two dozen people have been showing up for the monthly meetings, said Jonah Adkins, a CFA volunteer who specializes in mapping. He’s led the meetings at the paper and lately has been helping journalists with training on how they can use open street mapping stories—as the Daily Press recently did for a page listing free summer concerts. On June 6, the newspaper will be the local host for Code for America’s National Day of Civic Hacking.

Kevin Curry’s role as brigade captain with Code for Hampton Roads, a local CFA chapter, means he helps coordinate other CFA volunteers with civic projects. He says he’s had to be careful about setting expectations with the paper. “Our capacity is limited as volunteers,” he told me, but he said his hope is for an ongoing relationship. And while CFA has worked with other newspapers in the region, he said the Daily Press has seemed more “all in” on a strategic partnership.

At the moment, there’s no project akin to the court records database in the works. But for Porto, the arrangement has been a way to grow her newsroom.

“I would recommend it for any journalism organization that either doesn’t have a database person on staff or can’t really afford to pay for one in the market it’s in,” the editor said. “For us it’s been a learning opportunity. I consider this newsroom a learning newsroom. We do our best to bring folks in from other organizations to train the newsroom in things we don’t know about.”

Schoenfeld told me he didn’t expect his volunteering with Code for America might one day involve working so closely with a local newspaper. But while he’s more used to working with city governments and other nonprofits than alongside a reporter, the goal has always been to foster transparency and build tools that strengthen the community, he said.

“I’m glad we could work together,” he said about his help with Ress’s reporting, “and I could do what’s easy for me and he could do what’s easy for him.”

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correct the location of the Daily Press‘s new office.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.