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The Power of Small Data: Hunt for your story's data, since it won’t find you

The Power of Small Data: Hunt for your story's data, since it won’t find you

Picture of William Heisel

The person who holds the key to your mind-blowing story might be someone you would never talk to at a party.

They arrive at work at 6:50 a.m., put their headphones on and write code, taking the occasional vape break and eating lunch at their desk. Funyuns. With sriracha.

Most organizations – large or small – have a data expert these days. And you want to know them. You need to know them because they know more than you will ever need to or want to know. You need to know them because they will be able to take that well-crafted question that is the heart of your story and dive into a billion data points to help you find the answer.

That’s part of the hunt. If you have a story that needs to be told, you can’t wait for an email-clogging attachment to show up in your inbox. You have to hunt for the data that will help you tell your story, data that may surprise you and turn your story in a completely different direction.

This is what Liza Gross, a Center for Health Journalism National Fellow, did when she asked the question: Are the pesticides being used near schools in California’s Ventura County poisoning students?

The question was nicely defined. Not too big. Not off in some far corner of the speculative universe. And the question came with a sense of urgency. These are kids trying to learn. And, as the story explains, most of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds with parents who are not always able to advocate for themselves or their families. That’s the definition of an important question that only a reporter with the right tools can answer.

Working with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, Gross set out to document the volume of pesticides being used in largely Latino communities around California, particularly near schools. Gross delivered in a well reported, well written piece for The Nation, “Fields of Toxic Pesticides Surround the Schools of Ventura,” published in April 2015.

Gross discovered massive increases in pesticide use around schools in California, government inaction at the state and local level, and strong links between the chemicals being used and a range of health disorders. She wrote:

Oxnard and surrounding Ventura County grow more than 630 million pounds of strawberries a year, enough to feed 78 million Americans. But that bounty exacts a heavy toll: strawberries rank among California’s most pesticide-intensive crops. … Studies in laboratory animals and humans have linked many of these chemicals—including the organophosphate chlorpyrifos and fumigants 1,3-Dichloropropene (1,3-D), metam sodium, methyl bromide and chloropicrin, all used in strawberry production—to one or several chronic health conditions, including birth defects, asthma, cancer and multiple neurodevelopmental abnormalities. Use of many of these sixty-six pesticides has fallen statewide since 2007. But a handful of communities saw a dramatic increase. By 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, more than 29 million pounds of these chemicals—more than half the total used in the state — were applied in just 5 percent of California’s 1,769 census ZIP codes, according to an independent investigation by this reporter.

So how did she conduct this independent investigation. Hannah Hoag interviewed Gross for The Open Notebook in June 2015. She told Hoag that she used two main websites:

The California Department of Public Health’s Environmental Health Investigations Branch — and the Department of Pesticide Regulation, which allow you to examine the use of specific pesticides at specific times and places.

Gross ran into a problem, though, which regular data users will recognize. The datasets did not include easy-to-understand markers like counties and zip codes. Instead, all of the data were coded in accordance with the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Public Land Survey System. Gross accurately described it for Hoag as an “arcane geography-coding unit that has nothing to do with where people live.”

So Gross found a data expert at the Center for Regional Change at UC Davis to help her translate the bureau’s coding system into a map anyone could understand. As she told Hoag:

I often worried whether I would have a story at the end of it. I didn’t know until the data came back from my GIS expert what it would tell me. I had to hold out faith that it was going to be important, no matter what exactly it told me, to see where, or if, these toxic chemicals were concentrating over time. Eventually, I saw—wow! — a hotbed in this place Oxnard, which I hadn’t thought about before. Everyone was telling me to focus on the Central Valley, which definitely has more pesticide use than any other county in California, but those are not filtered by hazard. It’s not to say that the Central Valley is not heavily impacted by pesticides, it just shows you how much worse it is in Oxnard.

Note that Gross wasn’t sure what the answer would be when she posed her starting question. But she was open to the idea that it would be “important, no matter what exactly it told” her. That’s crucial for writing a story that is going to have true impact. Don’t be a zealot. Be an investigator.

Next: Doubt when you’re told the data don’t exist.

Related posts

The Power of Small Data: How Rwanda tried to save lives with better math

The Power of Small Data: Why you probably don’t need ‘big data’ for your stories

The Power of Small Data: Lessons learned from a number-crunching career

[Photo by Austin Valley via Flickr.]


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