this space intentionally left blank

October 5, 2010

Filed under: journalism»new_media

CQ Economy Tracker

I don't know how long this'll be available to the general public, so take a look while you can: CQ Economy Tracker (formerly the Economic Indicators project) is now live. It's the product of more than a year of off-and-on development, and I'm thrilled to finally have it out in the wild.

Economy Tracker collects six big economic data sets (GDP, inflation, employment and labor, personal income and savings, home sales and pricing, and foreclosure rates) across the national, regional, and state levels, extended back as far as we could get data--sometimes almost a hundred years. The data is graphed, mapped, available in a sortable table, and also made available as Excel spreadsheets. As far as we're aware, we're the only organization that's collecting all of this information and putting it together in one easy-to-read package. It's a great resource for our own reporters when they go looking for vetted economic data, as well as a handy tool for readers.

But more than that, Economy Tracker has been my team's bid for some fundamental ideas about data journalism. The back end is a fairly simple PHP/PostgreSQL database, with the emphasis on A) making it easy for non-technical reporters to update by accepting Excel spreadsheets in a very tolerant way, and B) returning results in the web-standard JSON format for consumption by either Flash or Javascript. The current dashboard applet is a full-service showcase for the collection, but using a standards-based API, it should be easy for my team to build new visualizations based on our economic data--including smaller, single-purpose widgets or mash-ups with political or demographic data--or for our customers and readers to do so.

I think the last few years have shown how this strategy--building a news API for both internal and external use--has had real benefits for the newsrooms that have boldly let the way, like NPR and the New York Times. Not only does it engage the segment of the audience that's willing to dig into their data (free publicity!), but it grants newsroom developers a fleetness of foot that's hard to beat. It's a lot easier, for example, for NPR to turn on a dime and toss off a tablet-optimized website, or create a new native mobile client, because their content is already mostly decoupled from presentation and available in a machine-readable format. That's kind of a big deal, especially as we wait to see how this whole mobile Internet thing is going to shake out.

Whether or not this approach takes off, I'm enormously proud of the work that my team has done on this project. It's been a massive undertaking: building our own custom graphing framework, creating an internal event scheme for coordinating the two panels (pick a year on the National pane and it synchronizes with the Regional/State pane, and vice versa), and figuring out how to remain responsive while still displaying up to 40,000 rows of labor statistics (a combination of caching and delayed processing). Most importantly, the Economy Tracker stands as a monument to a partnership between the multimedia team, researchers, and our economics editor, in the best tradition of CQ journalism.

Future - Present - Past