How one open data advocate is influencing the discussion about Chicago Public Schools

Jeanne Marie Olson is not a journalist. She will be the first to tell you that. And she will repeat it several times in a single conversation to make sure you understand.

But Olson is a Chicago-based researcher and a fierce open data advocate, one who’s committed to making information about the city school system more accessible and holding government accountable. This week, she’s been smack in the middle of the discussion over one of Chicago’s biggest education stories of the year. 

On Tuesday, news broke that some principals at the city’s already cash-strapped public schools had been told to prepare for a 39 percent reduction in the share of funding based on student enrollment. After seeing the Chicago Tribune’s Juan Perez Jr. report the news on Twitter, Olson quickly mapped the potential impact on each neighborhood school in the city and posted it to her Apples 2 Apples blog, a project with data analyst and developer Josh Kalov that mines and interprets Chicago public school data. The potential cuts translate to approximately 20 to 30 percent of a school’s entire budget, she explained in a separate blog post. In yet another post, she argued that the cuts would actually be even greater than the district acknowledged, when properly calculated.

All that came after Olson was the first to report last week that principals were being warned of 20 percent cuts in enrollment-based funding, before the number ballooned even higher.

It’s possible that the final cuts won’t be so drastic, but the ongoing financial crisis in the school system is one of Chicago’s most pressing issues. And the episode highlighted the role Olson has created for herself over the last few years: using visuals and interactives to make data and dollar figures more concrete, pushing back on official analyses about the schools, and doing it all in real time.

“It’s really impressive the kind of data they have and how quickly they are able to update it,” said Whet Moser, an associate editor at Chicago magazine, which in 2012 was one of the first publications to use Olson and Kalov’s data for a story on the geography of school poverty. “It’s one thing to get a nice infrastructure to put data in and another thing to continue to maintain that to change the data that’s in there based on the latest news.”

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Olson, a consultant and part-time lecturer at Northwestern University, as well as a public-school parent, may not be a journalist. But her detailed, open-source data mapping of the Chicago school system has certainly caught the attention of the city’s education reporters. She is active on Twitter, interacting with journalists to share the latest news or identify patterns she finds.

“I’m primarily interested in getting clean data into a useful format and putting it into context so that other parents can see why the data is important,” Olson told me. “I purposefully make it available to whomever wants it, including journalists. I welcome discussion and debate over my analysis and interpretation, and this often happens on Twitter more than anywhere else.”

Though she’ll occasionally break news herself, it makes her uncomfortable, she said. “More often than not, I pass tips and stories along to journalists I know who care about certain topics. If the data is already out there, or if a story doesn’t involve new data, a journalist is better equipped to do the work of following up with a source or getting confirmation with the district. And they will have a better platform for informing the public at large.”

Education reporters here in Chicago said they follow Olson, and a few other local residents who do similar work, as they cover the city schools.

“People like her are among a group of really savvy parents and activists in Chicago who have really helped a lot of us reporters look into the numbers,” said Melissa Sanchez, associate editor of Catalyst Chicago, an education news outlet. “A lot of this happens on social media where they call out the rhetoric that is convoluted if not outright wrong.”

Sanchez and DNAinfo reporter Heather Cherone, who reported on the potential cuts this week, said they use the Apples 2 Apples data and analysis from Olson as a starting point. “It’s obvious she has a lot of knowledge to share, and there are so many parts to the data,” Cherone said.

It’s important for journalists to keep in mind that Olson is coming from a particular viewpoint, Cherone said. Olson has been active with local education advocacy groups, and she’s not shy about expressing her own political beliefs, which can be critical of both state lawmakers and district administrators.

But Cherone also said she has never seen evidence of bias in the data that Olson has published.

Julie Vassilatos, who blogs about Chicago Public Schools on ChicagoNow, a Tribune-owned community site, agreed that Olson’s work has been valuable. The portrayal of her that sometimes appears in local media, of a Chicago mom taking on the system, doesn’t really do it justice, Vassilatos said. “She did amazing work with school closings.”

That’s a reference to Olson’s role in the public debate over the district’s controversial plan to close 50 schools. In one 2012 post, she published an analysis that challenged the formula the school system was using to measure how space was being used across the district.

When we spoke, Olson recalled showing that data to Linda Lutton, the Peabody Award-winning education reporter at the public radio station WBEZ. In Olson’s telling, Lutton asked her if she had gotten reaction from the school system. Olson reminded Lutton that she was not a reporter.

This week, Lutton didn’t recall the specifics of that conversation. But she said Olson’s skills in analyzing data sets, along with her transparency and willingness to post her data and “show her work,” have contributed to the city’s understanding of how the school district functions. “She’s raised all sorts of questions that journalists should be contemplating and covering,” Lutton said.

“I frequently cover parents upset at decisions made by the school board and mayor, parents convinced that a policy is just flat-out wrong, parents convinced that decisions are based on bad premises,” Lutton said. “The only way most parents can express their disagreement is through protest, speaking out.

“The thing that’s different about Jeanne is that she speaks the same language as the consultants and data analysts and managers running the school system,” she continued. “In some cases she isn’t saying anything different than what other parents are already saying—she’s saying it in a different way though, through data. And it’s a way that assists journalists in our task of not only repeating what two different sides are saying, but figuring out, to the degree we can, where the truth lies.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.