Summer in a newsroom

This past summer I had the opportunity to be embedded in the newsroom of the Sacramento Bee as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow. The AAAS places a number of scientists and engineers at mass media outlets every summer to help promote the communication of science with the general public.

I got the chance to work with a number of different people at the Sac Bee on both traditional science reporting and writing as well as some interactive features that added computational methods such as games and information graphics to the storytelling mix.

Once I got the hang of it the writing itself became a lot of fun: collect some background reference material, meet and talk to scientists and other stakeholders, ask some questions and put it all together in some kind of storyline. Here are a few of the pieces I wrote for the paper:

News people seem to have a curious affection for trivia games. When I suggested that I could do some interactive media like games, the trivia quiz seemed to be natural fit. I did three different straight-up trivia games:

Trivia games can be fun because they can span different media (e.g. photos and names) and different data types (e.g. free text, multiple choice, numbers / scales etc.) and people can learn as they play along. In all three trivia games I added some kind of feedback for self-evaluation. In the mascots guessing game there was also some time pressure so that it would keep things moving along.

I also got to do some interactive information graphics for the Sac Bee:

In the mass layoffs graphic the goal was to depict the data from mass layoff events in California on a map to show where the layoff hotspots were. You can animate through the map month by month to see when the worst layoffs occurred and in what cities. You can also click on a city and see the cumulative layoffs for that city.

In the California stimulus map, we visualized the federal stimulus money comingĀ to California on a county by county basis. Our hope was to highlight how the money was being spent and which counties were receiving the largest allocations. The data will continue to be updated, expanded, and cleaned so it’s an evolving artifact. In a slightly different take on the stimulus, I created a stimulus trivia game (see inset), which had the user trying to answer trivia questions based on their interaction with the graphic. My goal was to draw the user into the story and trace a path through the data space to expose them to different facets and perhaps some interesting outliers as they used the graphic. You can see a write-up and analysis of the piece from some folks at Georgia Tech here.

Finally, I spent a lot of time over the summer working on a lawn watering calculator (see below), the goal of which was to visualize some models about evaporative loss from sprinkler systems together with local Sacramento weather statistics on an hour by hour basis. Since things like solar radiation, temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed affect the amount of water lost in the air during watering we wanted people to be able to see when the best time of day would be to water their lawns if they wanted to conserve water. It turns out that watering in the evening may not be the best idea since air temperatures are often still high and the Delta breeze is cranked up in the valley.

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