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The MediaShift Innovation Spotlight looks in-depth at one great mash-up, database, mapping project or multimedia story that combines technology and journalism in useful ways. These projects can be at major newspaper or broadcast sites, or independent news sites or blogs.

What It Is

California Schools Guide from the Los Angeles Times is a comprehensive data-based guide to private, public and charter schools in California. The guide includes test scores, enrollment, student-teacher ratios, demographics, teacher experience and reader comments. Schools can be searched by county, city or name, and ranked by each indicator.

For people moving to or within the state, or just interested in tracking a school, this is an invaluable tool.

Why It’s Innovative

The California Department of Education has an enormous amount of information, but it is not provided in a usable manner. California Schools Guide presents more comprehensive, key information in a more user-friendly manner than other sites, such as GreatSchools.

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Ben Welsh

Ben Welsh, the database producer at the L.A. Times who built the back end of the project, said, “Basically the idea is to take a lot of the same data analysis work that papers have been doing for 10 to 15 years and turn them into web applications.”

The team at the L.A. Times started working on the California Schools Guide only one and a half months before it was launched last September. The launch date was based on the release of new test score data.

Who’s Behind It

California Schools Guide was created by Eric Ulken, who was the editor for interactive technology at the time (he is no longer at the LA Times); database producer Ben Welsh, and interactive graphics producer Sean Connelley, with help from members of the Computer-Assisted Reporting (CAR) team and education reporters.

Ulken, who served as project manager, said the project was a collaboration. The L.A. Times CAR team had been downloading and using the Department of Education data for years. Eric sold the project to the metro editor and education staff, bringing them in on what he wanted to accomplish, getting input on what would be relevant and interesting, and asking reporters to link to the project from relevant stories in the future.

Specs

The California Department of Education publishes “almost too much” information about education, said Welsh.

Although data acquisition can be difficult for other topics (spread among bureaucracies, cities, counties, etc.), much of the data needed for the L.A. Times was easy to get. The team gathered basic demographic information and recent test scores for all public schools in the state of California, and as much as they could get on private and charter schools.

California Schools Guide is built in Django, originally with a MySQL back end, but has since been ported to Django 1.0 using PostgreSQL. This change will mean that geographic information can be added in the future.

Since Welsh wouldn’t get the most recent test scores until right before the project was due to be launched, he used the older data as a template, and “hoped they wouldn’t change too much.”

Challenges

For Ulken, the biggest challenge was managing a project that had to be finished on a firm date, one and a half months after the start of the project. Because of this deadline, the scope of the project had be limited, and the team’s ability to act quickly was put to the test.

Welsh had to grind out a simplified version of the database, because the needed test scores weren’t yet available. He relied heavily on reporters who had previously worked with the education data to understand how the data fields worked.

Ben Welsh, a database producer who worked on the California Schools Guide, wrote on his blog:

I didn’t have the newsworthy data in hand until less than 24 hours before it would be publicly released. But by developing the site in advance using the previous year’s data as dummy entries, I was able to pre-script the loading of the 2008 data after only a few minor changes to the code. This meant that we were able to get our product out when the news hook dropped, at the same time as the paper was otherwise promoting an investigative story on the topic and the state’s propaganda arms were blasting its own message (“Things are getting better! Trust us!”).

Welsh and Ulken had already encountered and overcome some of the obstacles on previous projects, so they were able to leverage the same server and reuse some code.

3 Questions

What has the response to California Schools Guide been like?

Ulken: There have been lots of comments — the response has been mostly in the comments and traffic — not blockbuster traffic any one time, but steadily over the course of time.

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Eric Ulken

What is your favorite aspect of the project?

Ulken: I think my favorite part is the ability to rank schools in your county by different criteria, such as average SAT scores or API score (California’s benchmark for academic performance). Factoid: Of the 10 schools statewide with the highest API scores, eight are in the Bay Area and four of those are in Fremont. Is it something in the water up there?

What similar projects have been done at the L.A. Times?

Ben Welsh: On a previous application, L.A.‘s Top Dogs, we had to get the dog registration records to calculate most popular dog names and breeds. Of course, there’s individual municipal county licensing and the bureaucratic terrain is so fragmented. The big question was ‘Can you get electronic records for a broad enough area to be meaningful?’

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Call for More Spotlights

The MediaShift Innovation Spotlight will run every other week. Please let me know of any innovative projects you are working on or have seen lately. It doesn’t have to be from a major newspaper; it just has to be an innovative blend of journalism and technology. Please e-mail me at mtaylor[at]megantaylor[dot]org to submit a Spotlight recommendation.

Photo of Eric Ulken by Old Man Lee via Flickr.

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