Shop Notes

Tools & tips for investigative reporting

Posted: June 14, 2010 | Tags: computer-assisted reporting, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Matt Waite

Several staffers at the Workshop attended the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Las Vegas last week, and as always, it was highly instructive.

I'm going to take a look at the free online tools I learned about, some of which will help me do things I've been trying to do for months.

Free, online file conversion - Chase Davis of California Watch shared two sites. First is, which can take PDFs to Excel (or many of them, at least), and converts my nemesis, docx, into plain old doc. If that doesn't work, you can try xPDF.  How many times have you gotten a budget or spreadsheet from an agency in PDF form, and laboriously entered it into Excel by hand? Yeah, me too.

Crowdsourcing - Sharon McNary from KPCC-Southern California Public Radio and Amanda Michel from ProPublica had lots of great tips on how to structure the pitch and recruit participants. To manage the information you gather through a crowdsourced project they suggested a tool that you probably already use: Google Forms. If you have people enter their information through Google Forms, they said, it allows for easy export of the data into a spreadsheet. It also allows you to keep the fields consistent, a key element of data management. We'll be experimenting with that here at the Workshop, and we'll keep you posted on how it works.

Data visualization - There were a lot of great presentations on tools to present complicated data in clear, engaging, interactive ways online. Sarah Cohen of Duke University and Matt Waite of the St. Petersburg Times also emphasized that reporters can and should use data visualization tools to inform and guide their reporting early in the process, to figure out where a problem is concentrated, to confirm anecdotal evidence of increases in a problem over time, etc. I haven't tried any of these tools yet, but they feel full of potential:

Tableau Public: a robust data visualization tool that allows you to create charts, maps, and all sorts of neat things.

Many Eyes: another chart-builder, which seems less fancy and robust than Tableau, but still useful.

Simile and Preceden: two interactive timeline builders, which is great, because every complicated story benefits from a timeline, and they are a beast to build in Word.

Socrata: a public data sharing site. Not really a visualization tool, but a source for data to visualize.

I could go on and on about the tools I learned and the ideas they sparked, and maybe I will in another post later this week. But that's more than enough to get you started.

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