united states project

How Legislative Navigator tracks Georgia lawmakers

Journalists at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have built an impressive interactive
February 12, 2015

MIAMI — A veteran journalist who learned new skills, a newer hire with some serious statistical modeling chops, a dose of shoe-leather reporting, even a bit of creative thinking about how to turn an internal tool into a public resource.

Those are the ingredients that helped produce the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Legislative Navigator, an interactive database that allows Georgia’s political junkies to keep close track of what state lawmakers are up to—and that deserves a close look from any news organization considering a similar effort.

In addition to features that have now become pretty standard on these types of project—the ability to track specific bills, determine how legislators voted, and find out who contributed to their campaigns—the AJC’s navigator provides a batting average for each of the 236 members of the Georgia General Assembly, using each legislator’s history of sponsoring bills and data on how often those bills went anywhere at all. With only 30 percent of bills ultimately passing, few Georgia politicians are swinging for the fences.

The navigator also has a unique feature that predicts the probability of passage for every bill introduced. Before building the predictor, reporters interviewed veterans of Georgia’s political battles to find out what made a bill succeed or fail.

“You’re limited by the information in the data,” says John Perry, the technical director of the paper’s data journalism team. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in the legislature that isn’t in the data, the back room conversations and the power different people wield.”

A statistical model was then built by Jeff Ernsthausen, a former financial analyst for the Federal Reserve who has been in journalism just three years. The model, which provides a range of probabilities based on factors like the language in the bills and the relative political power of different sponsors, has done a “decent job” so far, Ernsthausen says, and will soon be tweaked to take into account where a bill is in the process and how many days are left in the legislative session.

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While Ernsthausen may be the whiz kid on the AJC’s data team, he and Scott Peacocke, a senior editor, are both quick to point out that much of the back-end programing work was done by Perry, an old-school journalist who started as a sports agate clerk at the Daily Oklahoman in the late 1980s. Perry told me he originally learned how to write code so he could clean up data he was using in investigations.

The tracker itself started out as an in-house tool for reporters covering the legislative session, Perry said. “We realized we had gathered a lot of information and we thought, ‘this could make a really cool tool for readers.’”

The team looked at other similar tools, like the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States project and MinnPost’s Legislative Bill Tracker, incorporating design ideas while trying to add new features, and the the AJC navigator was launched last year. The underlying data on bills and votes comes from the Georgia General Assembly; campaign contribution information is drawn from FollowTheMoney.org, the website of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Last year, the page got 20,000 unique views over the 40 days the legislature was in session—not huge numbers, but Perry considers them respectable, considering the niche audience of political junkies.

This year, the team has added a daily journal of all votes and changes in bill status, and more additions are coming. Unlike many legislative trackers, the AJC’s doesn’t yet have a keyword search function. Because AJC reporters have identified the legislation with the most significant impact on the general public in several broad categories, this is less of a problem than it might otherwise be, but Perry says keyword search is coming soon. The AJC also plans to add an address search function so readers can use figure out who their legislators are.

And in addition to those tweaks to the predictor model, Ernsthausen is thinking about how to build a tool that would allow users to create hypothetical legislation and figure out how likely it is to pass.

I asked what advice Perry would have for other journalists trying to pull of something similar in their states.

“Start off simple,” he said. “Then you can add features. We found that was pretty effective marketing. The legislative session is kind of gearing up right now. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be adding features as the legislative news is becoming interesting.”

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.