Archive for the ‘Students’ Category

Up in Flames: Flares wasting natural gas in the Eagle Ford Shale

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

If you drive through the bustling oil patch of the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio, it won’t take long to find the surreal sight of flares burning natural gas like perpetual bonfires.

Natural gas is cheap. Pipelines are expensive. So instead of collecting the fossil fuel, many oil and gas operators build tall, metallic spires called flare stacks to burn the gas and release it into the Texas sky.

Natural gas flareFor years, no one could say with any certainty how much natural gas was going to waste. Everyone knew flaring in shale country was a problem. But officials at the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state agency that oversees the oil and gas industry, had never released figures showing how much was being burned in the Eagle Ford.

Instead, the agency released only statewide figures showing the overall volume of flaring was low compared to overall production — about one percent.

Whenever a government agency touts rosy statistics, there’s probably a database behind those numbers. And if you obtain that raw data, you might be able to figure out what’s really going on.

Today’s Express-News story about flares burning 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas so far in 2014 is a good reminder of the value of public databases — and why journalists need to get their hands on them to analyze the records for themselves.

There’s no question analyzing data can be a lot of work. We filed an open records request with the Railroad Commission for a copy of the flaring data in the spring of 2013. It’s a huge database of monthly reports showing how much oil and gas is produced in Texas and where those hydrocarbons go. Flaring and venting are one of the “disposition” categories in the data.

I drove to the agency’s Austin headquarters with a flash drive that could handle the enormous database. It was a beast — more than 25 gigabytes of 85 million records. All that summer we used software to convert the Railroad Commission’s archaic data to CSV files, a format we could use in the newsroom. After that, it took weeks to crunch the numbers and uncover the hidden pitfalls.

Why go through the hassle? Why should frazzled journalists take the time to learn how to analyze data? Don’t we have enough to do?

The answers is, journalists need to know a lot of skills — how to interview people, how to write clearly, how to find information. Analyzing public data should be a part of that skill set. It opens doors to stories that couldn’t otherwise be told. This is what journalism is all about.

When we were finished reviewing the flaring data, our analysis showed that the volume of flared gas in Texas had increased by 400 percent since 2009. And most of that gas came from the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio. This chart essentially told the story of flaring in the shale that no one had figured out — not even state officials:

Quantifying the volume of flared gas opened up new questions and possibilities. When Projects Editor David Sheppard asked how much air pollution was created by all this flaring, we found out there was a way to calculate an estimate. We obtained emails from the state’s environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that showed how to estimate levels of air pollution created by gas flares. Those formulas were based on the volume of flared gas – which we had. So we plugged those numbers into Excel spreadsheets to come up with the amounts of sulfur, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that came from flaring in the region.

In August, the Express-News published the results of our investigation, Up in Flames. The total volume of wasted gas in the shale from 2009 to 2012 was almost 39 billion cubic feet — enough to meet the annual heating and cooking needs for all 335,700 residential customers who relied on gas last year in CPS Energy’s service area, which includes San Antonio.

The flaring figures for 2013 and 2014 continued going in one direction — up.

New search tips for 2014 from Google research scientist Daniel Russell

Monday, July 14th, 2014

I couldn’t attend the 2014 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Francisco this year. But thankfully, Google researcher Daniel Russell was there. He gave another excellent presentation about search-engine strategies and posted his advice online.

Daniel Russell, research scientist for GoogleAs the Uber Tech Lead at Google, Dan studies how people search the web. He started sharing little-known search techniques three years ago at the IRE conference in Boston. Since then he’s annually offered tips at IRE that can help everyone — not just reporters — find exactly what they’re searching for online.

Here are some of Dan’s new strategies and tools for 2014, and a recap of the most useful tips from his past presentations that I’ve used myself. You can check out posts about his other talks here and here.

Go back in time

One of the coolest new tools offered by Google this year allows you to jump in a time machine in Google Maps’ Street View.

Let’s say you’re walking around downtown San Antonio and you’re curious about the site of a historic building on Commerce Street across from Main Plaza. An inferno destroyed the building a few years ago and now there’s nothing but a vacant lot:

Commerce street without the Wolfson Building in Google Maps

In Google Street View, click on the clock symbol in the corner of the screen to check out how that spot looked over the years. In this case, you can look at what the Wolfson Building looked like before the catastrophic fire:

Google map image of the Wolfson Building in downtown San Antonio

The Wall Street Journal used this time-machine effect to illustrate dramatic growth in Brooklyn.

The cool thing about this is how you can pan around and get different perspectives of the sites you’re interested in.

Gallery of Google Map Mashups

The Google Maps Gallery allows organizations to mesh their data with Google maps. All these mashups are searchable, and Google links to the original sources if you want to download the information yourself.

Let’s say you’re curious about which counties in the United States are prone to tornado strikes. A search of “tornado” in the Google Maps Gallery shows a map based on federal data showing tornado strikes, total property damage, injuries and deaths by county:

Wildcards in Google Maps

Type an asterisk in the search bar of Google Maps and it will show you every business and significant, named place it knows about in the area you’re viewing.

If you plan on using any of this information in a news story, you’ll want to take steps to confirm what you’re seeing in the map. But this is a really quick way to get a sense of what’s in the area.

For example, if you’re writing about the Wolfson Building fire and want to get a quick idea of what businesses were nearby, in Google Maps, focus on the site on Commerce Street and try the wildcard search:

Force Google to search for certain words

By far the most common search function I use in Google is “intext,” which Russell discussed at his first presentation in Boston.

Sometimes Google tries to be too helpful. It changes your search terms and uses words it thinks you’re searching for– not the words you’re actually searching for.

And sometimes the websites in Google’s search results don’t include all your search terms because Google decided those pages might still be relevant.

That might be OK for general searches. But it’s not very helpful if you’re looking for pages with specific terms or words with unusual spellings. How do you make Google search for those exact words?

Typing intext:[keyword] (with no space on either side of the colon) might be Google’s least-known search operations, but it’s one of Dan’s favorites. It forces the search term to be in the body of the website.

If you’re researching the story of the Wolfson Building, for example, you’ll probably want to make sure that Google always includes that unique name in the search results. Typing intext:Wolfson San Antonio will force Google to include the term “Wolfson.”

Intext also works with phrases in quotes. So typing intext:”Wolfson Building” will strong-arm Google into showing you that exact phrase.

To learn more details about Google’s search operators, check out my post about his talk in Boston where he gave us a treasure-trove of advice.

Customized site searches

Google’s site search let’s you search for information on a particular website. Typing site:mysanantonio.com “Wolfson Building” would show pages with that phrase that were published by the San Antonio Express-News. But what if you wanted to regularly check what other local news outlets published in the San Antonio area?

Google can focus on multiple websites with its custom search engine. You tell Google which websites to search, save your settings and Google creates a link to the custom search page. Now you can search those specific websites any time.

This technique is handy for anyone interested in a particular beat or issue. I created this customized search of San Antonio media and blogs to quickly see how news organizations are covering a story. You can also sort the results by time or relevance, and conduct an image search with the terms you want on those websites.

Control F is your friend

Not everyone knows this so it’s worth repeating: Type “Control F” in Windows or “Command F” on a Mac to launch the “find” function in your browser to locate a specific word or phrase on any web page. It’s faster than reading the whole page if you’re looking for something in particular. “If you don’t know this, you’re roughly 12 percent slower in your searches,” Dan said at the IRE conference in Boston.

This year, Dan said useful Chrome extensions expand the usefulness of the “find” function. Let’s say you want to find more than one word. You could type an expression such as Wolfson|Building|Fire to highlight all those words. Handy.

Dan regularly blogs about search strategies by challenging readers with puzzles. It’s a good way to stay in practice. And practice, Dan says, is the best way to hone your search skills.

Telling stories about the unthinkable: How three journalists shined a spotlight on child abuse

Sunday, April 20th, 2014
Sarah Brasse

Sarah Brasse

In February 2009, an 8-year-old girl from Schertz died, alone, of acute appendicitis — a disease that could have easily been treated if caught in time.

In the hours leading up to her death, people concerned about the girl — including officers from the Schertz Police Department — had warned the Texas Department of Child Protective Services that she was a victim of neglect.

CPS didn’t act. And on Feb. 5, 2009, authorities found the girl’s body in a soiled bed.

Her name was Sarah Brasse.

It wasn’t so long ago in Texas that you would have had a tough time learning any of those tragic details.

In fact, according to the state officials in charge of protecting children from abusive adults, you would have had no legal right to even know Brasse’s name.

And you certainly wouldn’t be able to know the agency missed opportunities to help Brasse.

But a decade of diligent reporting by three Express-News journalists shined a spotlight of transparency on tragedies involving Brasse and scores of other children in San Antonio, helping the public understand the unfathomable.
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More awesome search tips from Google expert Daniel Russell, with real-world examples

Monday, July 1st, 2013
Daniel Russell, research master at Google

Daniel Russell, research master at Google

When a research scientist at Google offers to show you how to unlock the full potential of the powerful search engine, you pay attention.

Last year Daniel Russell spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Boston. Dan showed us search techniques that can make anyone a better researcher. Some tips I already knew. Others I thought I understood but didn’t. And some I had no idea existed.

I thought Dan’s talk was eye-opening — and others had the same reaction. My post about his presentation last year was widely shared, so there’s enormous interest to learn more about how Google works and how to use it effectively.

You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance. This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

Since that conference a year ago, Dan began offering online classes. I’ve had a year to practice many of these techniques. And about a week ago, Dan spoke again at the IRE conference in San Antonio with even more advice.

“You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance,” Dan said at his panel, Digging in with Google. “This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

I thought it’d be a good idea to compile some of the interesting new techniques, and revisit tips Dan discussed last year with some real-world examples of how journalists used them in actual news stories. Many of these methods also work on other search engines, such as Yahoo! and Bing.

These tips are for journalists, researchers, librarians and anyone else who wants to learn new ways to find information. Google will never replace the importance of shoe-leather reporting — knocking on doors and talking to real people. But Google can help reporters find the right doors to knock on and reveal surprising details about the people you’re talking to. Knowing how to find obscure information on the Internet is a vital skill for any journalist.

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Live-blogging the IRE 2013 Conference in San Antonio: Resources that will help you be a better journalist

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

IRE Conference 2013

Check out some of my favorite research tips, strategies and resources from this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, where about 1,100 incredibly talented journalists are meeting in San Antonio. These conferences are geared for journalists, but really anyone who’s interested in research tools will find many of these tips handy.
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How to make stunning time-lapse videos: Q&A with photojournalist Tamir Kalifa

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Freelance photojournalist Tamir Kalifa spent two days working on this stunning time-lapse video of the Texas Legislature’s opening day for the 83rd legislative session. Lawmakers convene in Austin every two years and the event is widely covered by the media. But Kalifa, an intern at the Texas Tribune, captured the energy of the day in a unique, compelling way. I called him to ask how he did it.

Q: This is actually the second time the Texas Tribune has done a time lapse of the opening day of the Texas Legislature.

A: Yeah, that’s correct.

What were you trying to convey in this particular video and how does time lapse help you do that?

Tamir Kalifa

Kalifa

Well, I think that during the off year, the Texas government is sort of hibernating and waiting for this huge burst of energy that happens in the first few months of the year. So really what I wanted to show was the Legislature sort of waking up and coming to life and the excitement that everybody — from the legislators to the lobbyists to the lawyers to everyone’s families — I wanted to get across how people are hugely involved. I just thought doing a time lapse was the most efficient way to show the enormous scale of it. There were thousands and thousands of people swarming around the Capitol. There was an enormous line waiting to get into the House chamber to hear Joe Straus, to see him sworn in again.

It was amazing. I’m a musician in Austin. Free Week is just coming to a close now. You had all these free shows and everybody is clamoring to get in. It’s one in, one out when it gets to capacity. I realized, as I was desperately trying to get into the House to just get a little glimpse of it, there are a lot of Texans who get that kind of enjoyment and excitement out of the government. And that’s awesome. I really wanted to show that and kind of show the grandeur of it. There aren’t that many things in Texas that are as old as the capital. So it’s also cool to showcase it in that way.
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How to create maps and charts with Google Fusion Tables

Monday, October 15th, 2012

The friendly folks at the Association of Health Care Journalists held a conference last week in San Antonio, and they invited me to present an introduction about Google Fusion Tables.

If you’re familiar with Microsoft Excel or Access, you might like Fusion Tables. It’s a free tool that allows you to create interactive maps and charts with data. For journalists, this is fantastic. Fusion Tables unlocks the data stuck in your hard drive and lets you easily share it with readers in a compelling format. Check out some great examples at Matt Stiles’ blog, the Daily Viz.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out this slideshow for a step-by-step tutorial about some of the basics.

Become a Google power searcher: Google is now offering free search lessons online

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Google power search lessonsWow, a lot of people are very, very eager to learn how to search the web more effectively. My post about Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques has generated a ton of traffic and great reactions. And today we learn that Google is going to start offering lessons to people to become power searchers.

Course details:

Power Searching with Google is a free online, community-based course showcasing search techniques and how to use them to solve real, everyday problems. It features:

  • Six 50-minute classes.
  • Interactive activities to practice new skills.
  • Opportunities to connect with others using Google Groups, Google+, and Hangouts on Air.
  • Upon passing the post-course assessment, a printable Certificate of Completion will be emailed to you.
  • Guess what I just signed up for?

    How to solve impossible problems: Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques

    Thursday, June 21st, 2012

    Daniel Russell stood in front of a crowd of investigative journalists in Boston last week and showed us this picture of a random skyscraper in an unknown city:

    Google challenge by Daniel Russell

    Russell posed a riddle:

    What’s the phone number of the office where this picture was snapped?

    Let that sink in. He wasn’t asking for a phone number for the skyscraper in the picture, which sounds hard enough. He wanted the phone number of the precise office where the photographer was standing when the picture was taken.

    Nothing in that office was even in the photo. Yet in a few minutes, Russell, a research scientist at Google, revealed the answer by paying attention to small details and walking us through a series of smart Google searches.

    Daniel Russell, research scientist for Google“Once you know these tricks, you can solve problems that look impossible,” Russell said.

    There are plenty of Google search cheat sheets floating around. But it’s not often you get to hear advice directly from someone at Google who offers you his favorite search tools, methods and perspectives to help you find the impossible.

    Here are some of my favorite tips shared by Russell at the 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. Some of these techniques are powerful but obscure; others are well-known but not fully understood by everyone.
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    Live-blogging the IRE 2012 Conference in Boston: Resources that will help you be a better investigative journalist

    Thursday, June 14th, 2012

    IRE 2012 Conference in BostonThe classic stereotype about journalists is that we’re all backstabbing vultures who would sell our mothers for a good story.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, we only sell our mothers for really, really good stories. But more importantly, we’re actually an amazingly friendly, collaborative bunch.

    I’m in Boston where more than 1,000 people are trading tips, offering advice and learning from the best journalists around at this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference.

    This is the place to be if you’ve ever wondered, say, how Washington Post reporters figured out the complexities of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. You get to listen to the actual reporters who worked on the story. They’re essentially saying, “Here’s how we did it, and here are some tips we learned to help you work on the same kind of story.” It’s a goldmine for anyone who cares about journalism and wants to do it better.
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