Talk: Data News on the Fly

Today I'm talking about how the WNYC Data News team has done some quick-turnaround projects, especially around Sandy, at the IRE Computer Assisted Reporting conference

Here are the slides for my presentation, including links I reference. 

I also wrote a quick outline about our thinking on how we could best serve our audience during the storm, called "Predicting Questions, Building Answers."

Making the NYC Evacuation Map

A couple of years ago, I had our WNYC engineers use a plotter to print out this huge evacuation map PDF. Seemed like a good thing for the disaster-planning file. Just in case.

Then, back in June of this year, I was browsing the NYC DataMine (like you do), and realized New York City had posted a shapefile for the colored zones on that map.

UPDATE (Feb. 11, 2012): NYC has nicely revamped the DataMine since the summer Irene struck -- even mapping geographic files like this right in the browser. But it's actually tricker to find the shapefiles now. Here's the hurricane zones dataset. Click "About" and scroll down to "Attachments" for the .zip file containing the shapefiles. Or just use this shortcut.

I knew I could use the shapefile to make a zoomable Google map -- which would be a heckuvalot easier to use than the PDF. So I imported the shapefile into a Google fusion table. (It's super easy to do; check out this step-by-step guide.) Next, I added that table as a layer in a Google Map and tacked on an address finder I'd developed for WNYC's census maps.

Then I tucked the code away on my computer. Just in case.

Fast-forward to Thursday morning, as Irene approached. On the subway in to work, I polished the map and added a color key. It was up on WNYC.org by midmorning, long before the Mayor ordered an evacuation of Zone A.

When the order was announced, I used another fusion table to add evacuation center locations, updating that list with info from New York City's Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne. (The dots are gone now, since the sites are closed.)

I'm not at liberty to reveal traffic numbers, but the site where we host our maps received, um, a lot more views than it usually does. By orders of magnitude. Huge props to the WNYC.org digital team for keeping the servers alive.

Break Glass Now

Consider, for a moment, the location of your nearest fire extinguisher.

And just how well did you use it last time?

Right. Chances are you're not prepared to skillfully put out a fire where you are sitting. At least you're not practiced.

But what if you had a non-emergency reason to use a fire extinguisher every once in a while? Maybe to clean your desk. Or a spill. (Nearest paper towel, anyone?) Using it occasionally would help insure that in case of a fire, you would both a) actually use it and b) use it well.

To better prepare our on-air and online operations for major breaking news, I've been promoting a point of view that says we shouldn't put our emergency tools, systems and skills "behind glass." Instead, we should incorporate those efforts into our everyday work. (I even believe we shouldn't put our energy into efforts that can't be used on a regular basis because in a crisis, we won't use them anyway.)

The best example of this is the daily production of our national morning program, The Takeaway with John Hockenberry and Adaora Udoji. The show's staff may just be the best breaking-news response team in public radio -- because they make the show in real-time every day, incorporating fresh news as they go. When the news happens to be really big, they're not just prepared ... they're already there.

A few other examples:
Map maker, map maker
In case of a civil emergency in New York, we'd want to quickly map shelters, closed roads, danger zones, escape routes. Even locate our staff. But we weren't prepared to whip together those kinds of maps in mere minutes. Now we're honing those skills by incorporating such work into everyday projects.

Information integration
When news hits the fan, information flies everywhere. Consolidating that data is key ... and also happens to be handy in everyday work. In the course of discussing a Mumbai-like terror attack in NYC, we discovered that our news-editing software can also check a listener email box. That's one less window to watch.

Nobody move
We designed our newsroom so that in a crisis nobody needs to change seats, which would move them away from familiar surroundings. As a byproduct, when something doesn't flow quite right during daily work, I try to make sure we address it now so we don't get caught off guard later.

Expected events as prototypes
In planning for election night, and now for the inauguration, we developed tools and techniques that will serve us again in a major unexpected event. We now know how to quickly rip up our station's home page to focus on a single topic. And in order to provide real-time election-night returns, we found new ways to clear the information path between the editors and the home page.

Share and share again
We share a statehouse reporter with stations across our region. So when former governor Eliot Spitzer imploded in a prostitution scandal, we didn't have to think twice about how to move information and audio between stations. We just used the FTP site and email list we use every day.
I've long been a fan of drills, and there are many more of those in our future. But by incorporating a little drill into our regular routine, we're better prepared for situations that are anything but.

[Photo by IamSAM. Some rights reserved.]

Prototyping Terror: Mumbai in NY

Two hours before our company holiday party, several of us were contemplating mass murder in Manhattan.

Not exactly Christmas cheer. But some good certainly came of it.

Really.

Several top thinkers and decision-makers reviewed the horrible events in Mumbai last month and considered how our news department would respond to a low-tech, coordinated attack on multiple locations in New York.

Here are some of our points of discussion, which could apply to any organization, journalistic or otherwise:

The Visioning Thing. We didn't do a full-scale drill, we simply took time to really visualize how things might happen. It was pretty powerful.

First we tried to think like terrorists and, as a group, picked three targets -- a transportation hub, a hotel and a shopping center. No sense naming them here; suffice it to say, we all knew each of them well and could picture the devastation and chaos.

Then we carefully imagined where each of our key people would be on a weeknight at 9:30, when Mumbai's night of hell began. Who lives where? Who's still at work? Who could get in fastest? What route would they take? Where would the first available reporters go? How would they stay safe? Think.

Our Civic Duty. We're journalists. It's second nature to pursue the facts and try to present them quickly, accurately in context. But as a broadcaster in a city under siege, our public service mission takes on new qualities, and raises questions. What do we do for people still in or near danger? Can we be better oriented to provide public warnings, safety and health info, comfort, maps, conversation, rumor control ... help? The conversation has started to adjust our operating Point of View, and could make a huge difference in how we serve our city (lowercase c) in those first few hours.

Information Overload. Phone calls, reporters, sources, Tweets, network audio, news wires, emails, web comments, TVs ... we easily came up with more than 20 distinct streams of audio, text, and visual information key to covering the story. In an era when all of this information is available to everyone on our staff, are we ready to monitor them all in a sophisticated, organized way? (Ah, no.)

Online, Under Pressure. Our methods for broadcasting have changed since 9/11 and The Northeast Blackout. We now use web alerts, social media, maps, and other tools to convey information. But when the adrenaline pumps, and minutes matter, we have to be ready to take advantage of all of these channels while maintaining our standards of accuracy and context.

Bias Toward Action. It's been 7 days since this meeting, and we're far better prepared than we were 8 days ago. What we've done, and are doing, is the subject of my next post, Break Glass Now.

[Photo by Andy Eakin]

Prototyping Disasters

Last week at a meeting of public radio news directors, I gave a presentation about the importance of prototyping for disaster planning -- getting off our chairs and actually trying out our plans. Here's a quick sketch of the speech, with documents included.

Key Principles

CONSIDER OPERATIONS AND SYSTEMS -- To do good journalism in moments of crisis, your systems and operations have to be ready at three levels: newsroom, station and a backup site in your city/region.

PROTOTYPE
PROTOTYPE PROTOTYPE -- To find out if you're ready, try it, test it, simulate it, do it. And repeat. Don't just write emails. And don't get too complicated. Take a page from design thinking and keep it simple. Then you don't get too invested in the test, and are open to changing your ways.

Prototyping Newsroom Systems

Example 1 -- Crisis Information Flow
At WNYC, we used Post-It notes to simulate how information flows through our newsroom to air during a breaking news situation. "Facts" were represented by shapes, and we watched how they moved (or didn't) through the process. We learned a ton, which you can see in our full case study, including a 15-mininute movie. What we learned improved our coverage of a big news story that broke the very next day.

Example 2 -- Full Scale Drill
We've also done a full-scale crisis drill, simulating a dirty-bomb attack. This involved the entire news and technical staff, who responded to information (wire stories, witness information, etc.) sent to them roughly once a minute for an hour. Due to the sensitive nature of this drill, I have not posted our case study. If you are interested in learning more about it, please contact me.

Prototyping Station Preparedness

Example -- Blackout Plans
To test our backup power, we regularly cut power to our facility (usually late at night) and make sure it still works. During the day, we actually relocate hosts to our backup room, as they'd do in a real outage.l Just three weeks ago, two of us got out of our chairs, walked to a key breaker box, and took a new look at which switches we'd have to throw in a blackout. In the process, we realized there were no backup lights in that room, so we wouldn't have been able to see the switches! We solved this with a $15 power-failure light.

Prototyping Operations Elsewhere in Your City/Region

Example -- Make Other Arrangements
Be ready to move somewhere else; we've had to do it twice (once on 9/11, once during the northeast blackout of 2003). We've arranged with another local studio to be our backup facility, and we have key equipment and supplies in place there now. Our full news and technical staff will be visiting the facility to see, touch and feel what it's like to set up there. We're also installing our own set of phone lines so we can do live call-in programs -- which have been essential components of our crisis coverage.

Tips

Click here for a 2-page PDF of helpful tips and tricks for public radio stations.
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