Counting the Jay-Z subway crowd

Saturday morning we did something fun: We counted the number of people who took the subway to the opening-night Jay-Z concert at Brooklyns new Barclays Center the night before.

Or at least got pretty close.

Traffic and transit were closely watched for the new arena, as it the 19,000 or so concertgoers would have just 541 parking spaces. So we decided to grab data from subway turnstiles to measure the crowds leaving the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center station for the show.

How we did it

Turning around the data overnight took a little planning. Here's how we pulled it off:

Every Saturday morning, the MTA posts turnstile data for the previous week. Fortunately for us, the last reading is 8 p.m. Friday, the scheduled start time for the concert.

The data files contain the entry and exit counter readings for each turnstile in the system as a sort of "odometer" reading. The data is a little tricky to use, though it does have a regular structure.

So Steve Melendez, our Data News Team programmer, wrote some Python code that grabs the data files and puts the individual readings into a SQLite database. He then sorted the readings by station (using this chart), and calculated how many exit clicks were logged for the Atlantic Avenue station from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

We suspected there would be a jump in the time period before the concert. So earlier in the week, we ran the numbers for each Friday for much of the year and calculated those averages (I ended up using just September, because they were higher, post-summer vacation readings). Then, Saturday morning, Steven got up really early Saturday and ran the program again, including the newly posted numbers.

He sent me the latest values, and I added them to the chart in a taxi on the way to the station. At 8:35 a.m., I was on the air talking about how it appears about a third of the concert-goers took the subway.

It could be more: Some people could have left the system at another station. And if anyone left through an emergency exit, or if they showed up after 8 p.m., they wouldn't be in our turnstile data.

But it's a place to start, and we'll be watching how these numbers change for future concerts and for Brooklyn Nets games.

The Thinking Behind WNYC's Vertical Timeline

Making a music stand, my father said, was a great challenge: Even though people had made them for centuries, it was still possible to blend beauty and function in a new way.

In journalism, the same is true for the timeline.

Presenting a chronological story online, beautifully and functionally, has been tricky. There are some great examples, such as the New York Times' chronology of the Iraq war, and the three-dimensional Middle East timeline from The Guardian.

ProPublica built the excellent TimelineSetter to put Times-like timelines in the hands of non-Times journalists, and we used it for a while. But TimelineSetter's horizontal layout got cramped in WNYC's article columns, and we longed for something that fit better.

Working with Balance Media and the WNYC web design team, we kicked around several ideas and settled on a vertical version. As it happened, Facebook's new vertical timeline had come out, inspiring a crop of JavaScript libraries we could work with.

We also decided to dispense with a journalistic convention that represented temporal gaps visually -- making months wider than weeks, for example -- and focus, instead, on seeing the sequence of events at once.

The live version at WNYC is here.

We also went with a center-spine orientation, which give it balance and allows the user to see more items at the same time. And the very cool Isotope code reshuffles the items to fit as they are closed, opened, resorted or even added.

Open to use

Finally we wanted it easy for us -- and you -- to use. So we wired it to Google Spreadsheets, allowing reporters and editors to easily enter and update the information. The wiring there is based on a previous project of ours called Tabletop.js.

And we made the source code openly available and scary-easy to use, and you can start by copying this Google spreadsheet template.

We usually build an HTML page just like the one in the code example, and then use a simple line of HTML to iframe it onto an article page. The only trick is to make sure the iframe is tall enough.

The code is free for non-commercial use; commercial use requires a $25 license fee for Isotope.

We hope folks will use the timeline, and come up with improvements. Let us know about either in the comments below or by writing me at john (at) johnkeefe (dot) net.

The Nevada Vote: In 3-D

The Guardian pushed the limits of election-night data display this week with a relief map of the Florida primary vote. 

They didn't push far enough.

As promised: Live election results in True 3-D.

Nevada 3d Still

(To avoid blog lag, I've put the live version here.)

You need a current browser to see it. Recent versions of Chrome and Firefox work. Safari does, too, if you nudge it.

With any luck, the counties shall grow as the vote rolls in tonight.

For those interested, I built it in Processing and use Processing.js to put it on the web. You're welcome to embed it if you wish. Just drop me a note or comment that you did.

UPDATE: My data-fetching code is a little wonky. Refresh the page to ensure the latest results!

UPDATE 2: I actually don't believe this is the best way to present numeric data. Representing numeric scale with a 3D drawing on a 2D surface is exceptionally tricky and should probably be avoided. Also, there are no rollovers or other clarifying information -- like county names and vote counts.

That said, I like the idea that some data sets might be worth spinning, touching and flying through. So maybe this is my first step in that direction.

Plus, it was fun.

UPDATE 3: By request, here is the Processing sketch upon which this was built. 

Free, Live Election data: Now's your chance to play

UPDATED in two key spots below.

Election geeks, you are in luck. For the second time, Google plans to offer free, real-time election results, allowing anyone to tinker and play with hard-to-get voting numbers.

It's for the Nevada Republican caucuses this Saturday, February 4, and even if you have no connection to Nevada, it's a chance to experiment with live results like the Big Guys. Make a map. Mash up some data. Have fun.

The first time Google did this, we made this Iowa caucuses results map at WNYC, mashing up Patchwork Nation community types with the live vote tally. And since we've been through it once, I've got some tips and tricks for making your own project.

My only request: Send me a link to whatever you make. I'd love to see it.

Setting the Fusion Table

Updated: The Google folks are providing live tallies from the Nevada GOP in two Fusion Tables -- one by county and one by precinct -- which will be updated with new data throughout the evening. 

This means means you get all of the functionality of those tables, including simple charts and cool maps. Check out these posts to get started with Fusion Tables, if you're not already familiar.

Urge to Merge

My favorite part of Fusion Tables is that you can easily merge (or join, in SQL-speak) two separate tables of data. In this case, you'll be able to merge any data organized by Nevada's 17 counties (one's actually an independent city). Unemployment figures, Social Security recipients and any U.S. Census designation you can think of are just a few of the possibilities.

Updated 11:39 a.m. 2/2/2012: This section originally talked about merging on the county's unique FIPS code -- which turns out to be tricky, since the results table doesn't have those codes. But if your data has the Nevada county names, you can merge using the name as the key (provided they are identical lists in both tables). Or you can add the county names to your data by adding a column and entering them by hand.

For reference, or to map the shapes of the Nevada counties, you can use this table I built merging data from the U.S. Census (which calls the FIPS codes "GEOID10") and the live election data.

No matter how you do it, once merged, you'll end up with a larger table containing all of your mashup data -- unemployment, number of children, etc. -- lined up next to the live vote data. Even though it's a new table, it'll update in real time with the underlying vote table.

Welcome, Json

If you're a JavaScripter, it is super easy to get the data you want from Google's results table, or a merged table you built with it.

First, construct a query url according to the Google Fusion Tables documentation. This can be a little tricky, but with some tinkering you can make it work. Be sure to encode commas, greater-than signs and other symbols. Here's a nifty URL encoder if you need to convert all or part of the URL. Also, surround with single-quotes any column name containing dashes, such as 'VoteCount-Paul'.

For a simple example, take a peek at this "shoes" table. Then try this URL:

A little decryption here: The + signs are spaces, and the %2C codes are commas. The table number we're looking at is 274409. So the syntax is "SELECT Product, Inventory FROM 274409." Append &jsonCallback=foo and you get back JSON. If you're using a jQuery AJAX call, as you'll see below, make it &jsonCallback=?

You should get a text file that looks like this:

foo({"table":{"cols":["Product","Inventory"],"rows":[["Amber Bead",1.251500558E9],["Black Shoes",356],["White Shoes",100]]}})

Voila! JSON.

To get the statewide total for Iowa, I made a crazylong URL that requests sums of the columns I wanted.

Pro-tip: If you try sorting the data within Fusion Tables using Options->Filter or Options->Aggregate the "query" you're using appears above the results. Use that to help form the URL after the query?sql= part.

Inside the JavaScript map application, I used jQuery's $.getJSON() function to hit that URL and load in the data, and setTimeout() to do it every two minutes. You can see and use the code here.

Try and Learn

If you've ever dreamed of making your own election-night results map, or just like the thrill of a new challenge, don't let this opportunity pass you by. It's lucky that we get a chance to play with free, live and well-structured voting information. And no matter what you learn in the process, I bet it'll be valuable down the road.

Maybe even in November.

As always, don't hesitate to contact me -- or post a comment -- with questions, clarifications and ideas. And if you're inspired to make something for Nevada's primary, definitely drop me a note and a link!

[ Map detail: Patchwork Nation - Votes for Barak Obama in 2008, by county ]

Making AP Election Data Easy with Fusion Tables

This post is for journalists who use (or would like to use) election data from the Associated Press -- which is a paid service the AP provides. If that describes you, read on!

When Google gave away free, live election data for the Iowa Caucuses, something struck me right away: It was easy.

Data provided by the Associated Press, which drives almost every election site you've ever seen, is notoriously tricky to manage -- a statement I'm confident making based on talks with many election-night veterans and on my own experience.

But Google's results were posted in a public Google Fusion Table, which is basically a spreadsheet on steroids. That meant I could get the data I wanted simply by constructing the correct URL. Votes by county, sorted by county? No problem. Candidate totals for the entire state? Sure. Votes mashed with other data I had? Yup. Formatted in JSON? Bring it.

Instantly. Easily.

(Here are the URLs I used above, and here's the documentation from Google on how to construct them. Hard-to-find tip: Append &jsonCallback=anything to get the json. And if you're using jQuery AJAX calls, make it &jsonCallback=?)

A week later, for the New Hampshire Primary, there were no free Google data. So I made an AP data-fetcher-and-wrangler based on code by Al Shaw. Through no fault of Al's code, my adaptation was slow, complicated and crashed every couple of hours. It worked, but just barely.

Next up was South Carolina, and I was determined to make AP's data friendlier by putting in a Google Fusion Table.

And it worked.

How I did it

In the interest of time and clarity -- and to spark discussion before the primaries are over (or irrelevant) -- I'm leaving out a bunch of the nitpicky details. If you're an AP Elections subscriber and want to try this, contact me at john (at) I'll help you any way I can.

AP provides data in several formats, including a "flat file," which basically is a huge, semicolon-delimited spreadsheet. Each row represents a county, and each column the latest stats for that county, such as precincts reporting and each candidate's total votes.

The flat file doesn't have column headers, though. So I first uploaded AP's South Carolina test table to Google Spreadsheets and added the column names I needed.

I then imported the spreadsheet into a non-public Google Fusion Table.

For election night, I set up a script on my computer that does the following steps every two minutes:

1. Logs into AP's servers via FTP and downloads the flat file.

2. Deletes the data from the Google Fusion Table I made earlier and uploads the entire flat file anew. This is accomplished with a little Python program written by the brilliant (and patient) Kathryn Hurley, of the Google Fusion Tables team. I've posted it here with her permission. I don't know Python, but didn't need to. I just needed to make sure the list of columns in the exactly matched the columns in my table. So I cut-and-pasted them from the Google spreadsheet. The script executes the command:

python [google account username] [flat file filepath] [fusion table id]

3. Next, it hits the Fusion Table with a simple URL request formatted to return the data I want as JSON. This is the URL I used for getting the county totals.

4. Then it sends that JSON as a file, via FTP, to a subdirectory of my map application on WNYC's servers.

Once a minute, the election map running in the user's browser looks at that data file to get the latest info.

In this way, I completely avoided the need to build and maintain a database. I know there are great database folks out there, but I'm not one of them. The Fusion Table became my database.

Technically, I could skip steps 3 and 4 by simply pointing my map application at the Fusion Table to get the data it needs. That's what I did for Iowa, using the free Google data. But the table would be publicly visisble on Google's servers ... and my reading of the AP contract, understandably, doesn't allow that.

I strongly believe that the easier AP's data is to use, the more budding journocoders will make new election-night interactives. And if we can work together to do that, let's. For me, this method was a lot easier than anything else I had tried before.

A final note: If you're a Python-savvy programmer, be sure to check out what the LA Times has shared to make life easier, too. It's pretty slick.

Journo-Hacker Sharing in Action

If you need more proof that it's valuable for journalist-programmers to show their work, here's some: WNYC's Live New Jersey Election Map.

Exactly one week after Albert Sun of the Wall Street Journal New York Times shared some of his work, we made this:

(Map isn't embeddable for licensing reasons; the live version is here.)

Here's what happened.

Last month I went to a Hacks/Hackers NYC meetup about mapping. There, Albert showed his WSJ Census Map Maker project and a map I had admired that has dynamic mouse-overs without using Flash. At one point, he showed his project's code repository and welcomed us to use and build on it.

The next day, I downloaded the code and tried to make a rough version of Albert's map, but using the shapes of New Jersey legislative disricts (downladed from the US Census, stored in this Fusion Table, which generates this KML file). After a little tinkering -- which includes a fix I've described in the comments below -- I managed to build one that works. I sent that to stellar coder Jonathan Soma, of Balance Media, who works with me to build interactives for WNYC.

I also reached out to Al Shaw, of ProPublica, who I knew (from another Hacks/Hackers Meetup) had wrestled with live Associated Press election data for Talking Points Memo. He had some great tips, which I passed along to Soma, too.

Also on the case were Balance's Kate Reyes and Adda Birnir, who crafted the map's design and user experience -- a particularly tricky task because each district elects one person for state senate and two people for state assembly.

A week later, as the results rolled in, WNYC's map was live and rockin' -- listing real-time returns for each district, and changing colors when races were called.

In the process, Soma built on Albert's work, and those modifications are now a part of the code base (see Github commits here and here).

And if you need proof that such work is valuable, the map was WNYC's No. 6 traffic-getter for the month -- despite the fact it was truly useful for about 4 hours late on the evening of an off-year election.

Sharing NYC Police Precinct Data

No sense keeping good data to yourself.

The map below went with these excellent WNYC stories about low-level marijuana arrests in New York City. After building it, I ended up with some data files that could be useful to others crunching population data by NYPD precinct. So we're sharing them here.

The trick to doing this analysis was to determine the populations of each precinct. But the US Census Bureau doesn't break down numbers that way. So I took the smallest Census unit -- the block -- and determined which blocks were in which precincts.

(I worked with PostgreSQL, PostGIS and QGIS, along with the generosity and insights of Jeff Larson and Al Shaw at ProPublica, and Jonathan Soma at Balance Coop.)

Data For You

Each of the following files are kept on Google Fusion Tables. You can use them there, or download them to your computer using File -> Export.

• precinct_block_key.csv is the Rosetta Stone for this project. It has two columns: each block's identifier, which the Census calls "GEOID10," and the precinct in which that block sits. Note that some blocks aren't in any precinct, usually because they're actually in the water. 

• NYC_Blocks_2010CensusData_Plus_Precincts contains base-level 2010 Census data for each block, married to the precinct for that block. A nice Fusion Tables trick is to pick View -> Aggregate, check "Sum" for the columns you want and then, lower down, chose to aggregate by precinct. Then you get totals for each precinct. For descriptions of the population columns, get this rather large PDF from the Census Bureau and jump to page 6-21 (Updated: Or, go to the page online with DocumentCloud.)

NYC_Police_Precinct_Shapes_4326 is the official police precinct map converted into a Google Map-friendly projection. I've used the fantastic tool to upload my transformed shape file to Fusion Tables, where it's easy to play with.


I've done my best to be accurate in computing the intersection of blocks and precincts, even generating precinct maps and inspecting them visually. But errors may exist.

In fact, they do exist. While Census blocks generally fall nicely within precinct outlines, they don't always. In particular, three blocks significantly straddle two precincts. If you're doing very precise analysis, you'll want to account for them:

• Block 360470071002003: An area near the north end of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. About half is in Precinct 76 and half in Precinct78. Total people: 51

• Block 360050096002000: Mainly industrial. Half in Precinct 76, half in Precinct 78. Total people: 5.

• Block 360610265003001: This block consists of five similar-sized apartment buildings near the GW Bridge. The northern three buildings are in Precinct 34, and the southern two are in Precinct 33. Looks like roughly a 60/40 split of the 687 living there.

If you find this information useful, drop me a note or post a comment below. We'd love to know about it.

Making the WNYC Census Map

When the New York census numbers arrived this week, we were ready. WNYC quickly published an interactive, sharable map so New Yorkers -- and our reporters -- could explore the new data and see the stories.

We built the map with free tools and timely help from some smart, kind people.


The short story is that we mashed together population numbers and geographic shapes using Google Fusion Tables, and then used JavaScript and Fusion Tables' mapping features to make things pretty and interactive.

The long story is meandering and full of wrong turns. But here are the highlights, should anyone need a little navigation. Don't hesitate to contact me for more help and insight; I'm due to pay some forward.

Getting in Shape

First up: Shapes of the census tracts plotted on Earth. I downloaded New York's tracts from the U.S. Census Bureau's TIGER/Line Shapefile page. They also have counties, blocks, zip codes, and more.

Then I uploaded this "shapefile" -- actually collection of related files zipped together -- to Fusion Tables with a free, online tool called Shpescape. (Thanks to Google's Rebecca Shapley for sharing this key to my puzzle.)

Hello, Data

Census data is publicly available, but can be a hassle to handle. In fact, on the day each state's info was released, the files were available in a set that apparently requires one of two pricey programs -- SAS or Microsoft Access -- to assemble. 

So I got clean, assembled, comma-delimited files -- complete with 2000-to-2010 comparisons -- from the USA Today census team, which provided them as a courtesy to members of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Huge props to Anthony DeBarros and Paul Overberg, who crunched the New York numbers in a blazing 30 minutes.

By the way, IRE membership is $60 for professionals and $25 for students. Well worth it, and cheaper than either of those programs. If you're digging into census numbers and qualify, I recommend this route.

That said, every state's 2010 data is now available free from the Census Bureau's American Fact Finder. Navigating the site is a little tricky, and worth a separate post, but the bureau provides some tutorials, and there's very detailed PDF about each data field.

With data in hand, I uploaded it to Google Fusion Tables in another table.

Map Making

Next, I merged the shapes table and population table, using the unique tract ID to marry the data (the shape file calls it GEOID10. the IRE data calls it FULLTRACT). Note that the GEOID10 is formatted differently depending on whether you're using tracts, blocks, counties, etc., so be sure you've got the right match in both files.

Clicking Visualize -> Map shows a map. It'll be all default-red until you click on Configure Styles -> Fill Colors -> Gradient (or ->Buckets) and make different colors appear depending on values in the column of your choice.

Using the Share button makes the map viewable by others, and "Get embeddable link" does just that.

Adding Prettiness

I used the Fusion Tables "Configure info window" option to make custom pop-up bubbles on our maps. This actually required some nicer-looking data, such as a columns with rounded percentages and + or – signs. I added these using the free R statistical program, which I learned how to do from The New York Times' Amanda Cox at the 2011 Computer Assisted Reporting conference.)

Census tracts officially extend to the state lines, which made it look like a lot of people live in the Hudson River. So I had trimmed those tracts to the shorelines with a free mapping program called QGIS, using water shapefiles as a reference (those are here, in the drop-down menu).

After creating 12 merged Fusion Tables, I pulled them into one page using JavaScript and jQuery, with fantastic guidance from Joe Germuska at the Chicago Tribune (part of the team that built this great map).

The "Share/Embed this view" feature came together in two parts: 1) The JavaScript turns the current the latitude, longitude, zoom level and current map choice into a long URL that pops up when you click the Share/Embed link. 2) Using a nifty jQuery plug-in (updated link Dec. 2011), the map looks for those values in the URL that summoned it, and reorients to that map if they exist.

Prep Work

Clearly, not all of this could happen in a couple of hours on Data Day. I'd been tinkering, testing and tweaking for a few weeks using New Jersey's data, which came out much earlier.

I also wrote down, edited and revised every step I took to make the maps. So when the adrenaline was running I had a script to follow.

The WNYC Web Team also set up a slick, fresh project server, at, to host the html pages and track the traffic.

Fusion Function

Using Google Fusion Tables made it super easy to manage, map and serve up a lot of data. And the FT feedback team was fantastic about responding to questions and glitches I encountered along the way.

I did run into a couple of hiccups: slow load times and pop-up bubbles that failed to pop up. The first was a product of displaying so much data -- and I knew I was pushing things. The second was a Google glitch that their engineers managed to fix within a few hours, but was still spotty at times afterward.

Also, the Google Map engine starts dropping shapes when there are too many to show. So I funneled different counties' data into almost a dozen different layers, a workaround the Google folks showed me ahead of time.

That said, I had time to code and tweak lots of neat things because I didn't have to focus on building or running a database engine. Google's free services took care of that.

What Could Be Better?

Probably a lot. I wanted to let people to add comments, right on the map, but didn't have the chops or time to pull that off.

Another good thing would be a "Loading ..." indicator displayed while the map data is pulled into your browser, which I may yet add.

But what couldn't have been better was everything I learned, the help I got from other data folks and the support from my WNYC colleagues. Plus we gave New Yorkers a pretty nifty service and several great stories.

Need more details? Feel free to ask questions in the comments. Or drop me a line. I'll try to help, too.

Fast, Little Maps with Fusion Tables

Google Fusion Tables can handle huge amounts of data -- and seem designed for that. But a great little secret is that they're fantastic for making fast maps. Even little ones.

And it's surprisingly easy.

At WNYC, we used fusion tables for this quickie map of 63 taxi relief stands. My colleague Jim Colgan whipped together these plowed-streets maps (including the one below) from listeners' texted-in reports -- while he was sick in bed!

Some reasons we've been drawn to mapping with Google Fusion Tables:

Simple uploads. All you need is a comma-separated table (csv) or a spreadsheet made in Excel or Google Docs. Each "point" goes on a row. If you have even basic Excel skills, you're more than ready to go.

Embedded geocoding. Put addresses in one of your columns, and Google will geocode them for you -- doing the work of finding the latitude and longitude for your pin. If you already have the coordinates, that's fine, too. Here's the help page on this for more.

Customizable icons. You can designate one of your columns as the icon column, and use this map of available icons to pick names to put in that column for each point There are some really clear instructions for this

Custom popups. You can define what appears in a pin's pop-up bubble. Doing this is a little tricky, but just. In the "map" visualization, click on "Configure Info Window." I find the default templates confusing, so I choose "Custom" from the drop-down menu. You can then use text, html and the table info {in_curly_brackets} to craft a custom bubble.

Easy embeds. Zoom and position the map as you like it and then click the "Get Link" button for a link to what you see. Or click the blue "Get embeddable link" link to get the embed code. (Design note to Google folks: It's confusing that one of these is a button and one is an html link!)

Easy updates. You can add more data points easily, either with additional uploads or just typing your additions or fixes in your browser. 

Privacy controls. As with other Google products, you can click the "Share" button to control who can view and/or edit each table and map -- which is really nice for working in teams.

News maps on news time.  That's been working for us.

Update: Jim Colgan, who put together the snowplow map, talks about how he did it with the folks at Mobile Commons, who run the platform we use for texting projects.