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To investigate LA’s failure to maintain hygiene stations, I had to learn a whole new skill set

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

To investigate LA’s failure to maintain hygiene stations, I had to learn a whole new skill set

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Hygiene stations and toilets in LA’s Little Tokyo neighborhood.
Hygiene stations and toilets in LA’s Little Tokyo neighborhood.
(Photo via Lexis-Olivier Ray/L.A. TACO)

I was barely scraping by as a freelancer before the pandemic. But after the city of Los Angeles shut down, things looked even more grim.

My instinct was to grab my camera and hit the streets. Typically, I would pick a direction. Walking east, I hit downtown, north Echo Park, west Koreatown. But my favorite direction to head was south towards MacArthur Park, a beautiful, densely populated, majority Latino neighborhood filled with hand-painted signs, architecture from the dawn of Los Angeles, and street vendors selling Central American food.

While embarking on these long walks through MacArthur Park and other neighborhoods, I began to notice portable sinks start to pop up on various corners. Over the course of many days of walking, it became clear that some of these units weren’t being maintained regularly. Some had soap but no water, others water but no soap. Some were completely dry.

I started uploading videos of the neglected units to Twitter and eventually, Jenna Chandler, the editor-in-chief at Curbed LA at the time, reached out to see if I would be interested in writing about the stations. Back then, this was the biggest writing opportunity that I had ever been presented with. 

Because there was no data available, to report the story for Curbed I spent hours walking around MacArthur Park, checking on every hygiene station in the neighborhood daily for a couple of weeks. I could have driven to each location but walking through the neighborhood helped me connect with it deeper. And plus, parking in the neighborhood is scarce! I found that many of the units were not being serviced properly.

Within a week or so of my reporting, I was cited in a major federal lawsuit between business owners in downtown LA and the city. Not long after, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proclaimed during a COVID-19 briefing that all hygiene units would be assessed daily going forward, as opposed to weekly.

About a month later, a fellow journalist named Adrian Riskin reached out to me with an exclusive.

Adrian had obtained about a month's worth of assessment logs from the sanitation department that showed the soap, water and paper towel levels at all the hygiene units citywide. I went to Jenna at Curbed LA with the scoop but unfortunately by then Curbed LA was on the verge of closing. So, I took the story to L.A. TACO in May.

A few weeks later, George Floyd was murdered on camera. Protests erupted in LA almost immediately. And my focus quickly went from telling stories about housing and the pandemic to being on the front lines reporting on the uprisings.

As a result, I had to push several projects that I was passionate about to the back burner, including a story on the hygiene stations. Reporting on the biggest civil rights movement of my lifetime came first. But after weeks of reporting on the demonstrations, I started to think about that pot of stories hanging out on the back of the stove.

Shortly after that, I reached out to Aura Bogado, an investigative reporter at Reveal, a nonprofit investigative newsroom. During a conversation with Aura, who is now a 2021 Data Fellow, I told her about some of the ideas that I let fall by the wayside. When I told her about the hygiene story in the back of my mind, it caught her attention. Aura encouraged me to take a deeper look at the handwashing stations rather than try to get a story out as soon as possible.

Soon after, I came across a Tweet about the 2020 Data Fellowship. For months I sat on this exclusive data because I didn’t know how to properly analyze it. A crash course in data journalism seemed like the perfect fit for me so I applied and a few months later, I found out I was accepted.

I was in a fortunate position in many ways. Unlike some of my fellow reporters, I had already obtained months of data that presumably only I had access to. I naively assumed analyzing that data would be easy, but it proved to be much more challenging.

For starters, my data was a mess. There was a spreadsheet for each day. And I had nearly six months of data to go through. Plus, there were inconsistencies. Some spreadsheets had eight columns, others had four or five.

To this day, as far as I know, there is no easy way to combine a bunch of spreadsheets together. I found a few solutions online, but they had limitations. Running into messy data was discouraging for someone working on their first data project and it slowed me down.

After I finally managed to combine all the spreadsheets, I discovered that there were also inconsistencies with my data. For example, a unit at 405 San Pedro might also be listed as 4th and San Pedro. 

Thankfully, Minneapolis Star Data Editor MaryJo Webster, my senior fellow during the project, reassured me that it’s common to deal with messy data. Data is never truly perfect. You should treat it like you would any other source and question it.

After weeks of analyzing data, learning how to use new software and visualizing data, I began feeling overwhelmed and had a hard time boiling down my project into clear story ideas. That’s when MaryJo encouraged me to focus on one central hypothesis and a few easy-to-understand findings to build my stories around. She explained that oftentimes the simplest findings are the most impactful because they’re the easiest to understand.

So, rather than trying to figure out which handwashing station had the worst maintenance record in the city for instance, I focused on the total number of units that the city assessed each day and found that the city failed to assess all of the units as they had promised.

I also highlighted the fact that there was a desperate need for port-a-potties, based on conversations I had with unhoused folks through my project. I also followed the money, which led to a story about how vendors were getting paid millions of dollars for work they weren’t completing.

That story pushed the city to remove all of the units. But follow-up reporting, revealing that city representatives were blindsided by the move and didn’t support the decision, made the city reconsider their decision. And about a month after my story, they voted to reinstate a portion of the units that they removed. During a Los Angeles City Council meeting, Councilmember Mike Bonin shouted out my reporting, shortly before the council unanimously approved to bring back the units.

But the story didn’t end there, my latest report on hygiene stations revealed that the city has been slow to reinstate all of the units that they approved, and there are still issues concerning maintenance.

None of this would have been possible without the fellowship. To tell this investigative story, I had to learn a completely new skillset.

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