Humanizing ‘Dry’ Data Is Only Part of the Challenge for Community News

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dataI’m utterly convinced that data will be the salvation of community news sites, both in delivering more audience-engaging content and doing so cost-effectively. But “humanizing” data is only one piece of the challenge and not the hardest.

The subject came up during a panel at the recent Street Fight Summit in New York, when EveryBlock‘s president Brian Addison said sites need to put a human layer between the audience and  “dry and creepy” data. At EveryBlock, neighbors are encouraged to provide the missing humanity.

But the big problem in community journalism is not data that’s dry and creepy. It’s data that’s incomplete, badly formatted, sloppily collected or — most serious of all — withheld. I’m encountering all four problems while putting together the demo for my Local America project to rate communities across a wide spectrum of livability categories.

The demo community I chose is historic Anacostia, a community that is 97% black on “the east side of the river” part of Washington, D.C., which most Washingtonians have never visited except as commuters on the freeway traveling from and to suburban Maryland. I picked Anacostia because, after 50 years of neglect and worse, it’s starting to come back, which will make for a strong, multifaceted running story.

Schools are a big issue in Anacostia. At Anacostia High School, the students (almost 100% of them are black) perform poorly, according to standard metrics, such as math and reading tests, truancy, and graduation. It would have been easy for me to sling together data points that would show how bad the school was. Truancy, for instance, runs at a record high rate of 42% at Anacostia High, according to the city. That rate got bandied around in the news media, and there was a collective shaking of heads.

Something told me to check that number, though. I started with District of Columbia Public Schools. I put my questions to a public information officer and was stonewalled. That forced me to go the Freedom of Information Act route. But this will take a month for results, if that.

In the meantime, I called Paul Penniman, director of the Resources for Inner-City Children nonprofit that was leading one of the anti-truancy programs at Anacostia High. I asked Penniman about the 42% truancy number. He said, yes, probably 42% of the students were absent without an excuse at least 15 times a year (the definition of truancy), but in many cases, it wasn’t their fault. Some students, he said, had to babysit siblings or do other chores and others were subject to an array of traumas including physical and sexual abuse. Some were also pregnant. Penniman said it isn’t hard to rack up 15 absences over nine months if you have to babysit your little brother. But the student who is babysitting is counted as truant.

One of his biggest frustrations, Penniman said, was in trying to obtain accurate and timely information on unexcused absences from the reporting system used by Anacostia High. The system, he said, delivered false positives and, because it was so slow, missed trends that should have been red-flagged earlier.

Penniman gave me some great stories of successes by his program in helping 19 of 80 “truant” students return to school over one year. Their narratives — like the one of Mercedes, who graduated while raising her two babies — do help to humanize the issue. But even without the Mercedeses, the story of the D.C. schools’ truancy data is a powerful one.

The story’s power comes in how D.C., despite its national reputation for “open data,” is not doing nearly enough to get the good and reliable information out there. I shouldn’t have to go the FOIA route to obtain basic truancy data. Penniman should not have to rely on a truancy reporting system that sends out false alarms and misses real problems. And I’m sure other municipalities are messing with data, either wittingly or otherwise, the same way D.C. is.

We may think we’re drowning in data, but we need a lot more of it that’s more timely and on the issues that really matter. We need good reporting systems on truancy (real truancy), teacher-effectiveness programs, minority students’ academic achievement, and the progress of individual students through all their years. I think the community wants those performance numbers, too.

If we get that data, even without a human layer, we’ll get better journalism, at a cost-effective price. And, most important of all, we’ll get better communities.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.