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  • How to make stunning time-lapse videos: Q&A with photojournalist Tamir Kalifa

    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

    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.

    How to create maps and charts with Google Fusion Tables   John TedescoIf 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

    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

    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

    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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  • Wrong-way crashes on San Antonio highways happen more often than you might think

    Wrong-way crashes in San Antonio flew under the radar

    A few months ago, my boss, Express-News Projects Editor David Sheppard, asked me to see what we could find out about wrong-way crashes on highways. It seemed like there were a lot of these deadly accidents in the news lately, and local officials had recently unveiled a $500,000 pilot project to install flashing wrong-way signs and radar on a 15-mile segment of U.S. 281.

    I wrapped up what I was working on and teamed up with reporter Vianna Davila, who covers transportation. We had to answer two deceptively simple questions. How often do wrong-way crashes happen? And how does Bexar County compare to other counties?

    We turned to a giant database maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation called the Crash Records Information System. It’s derived from accident reports filled out by law enforcement officers, and it tracks hundreds of details about every accident in Texas — including wrong-way crashes.

    But we soon learned there was no quick and easy way to filter the data for the specific wrong-way accidents we were looking for — crashes on major divided highways with exit and entrance ramps.

    The database had a “road type” field, with categories that included interstates, tollways and U.S. and state highways. So far, so good. But some state highways are actually busy roads, such as Bandera Road. The wrong-way crashes on those boulevards are different from the type of accident we were examining. We weren’t writing about distracted drivers who cross a center line into oncoming traffic. We were writing about drivers who head up exit ramps and into oncoming traffic on busy highways and interstates.

    We ended up selecting the five Texas counties with the largest populations, mapped the wrong-way accidents with Google Fusion Tables, and then eyeballed each location to make sure it actually occurred on a major highway. Here’s how the finished product looked for Bexar County:

    It took hours of work but the result was a set of specific crashes we were looking for. And the final numbers were surprising — Bexar County ranked high in wrong-way accidents for the years 2007-2011. It even had more crashes than Dallas County, which is more densely populated and has more traffic. To our knowledge, no one has done this kind of comparison in recent years.

    If you work for a news organization and you’re jumping into data journalism (and you should be), it’s a good idea to share your methodology and findings with the government employees who oversee the data. You don’t want to be surprised by an error they catch after the story is published. And it gives the agency a chance to respond if your findings cast the agency in a harsh light.

    It was certainly surprising to learn Bexar County ranked so high. The other surprise was how long the deadly problem flew under the radar. Despite several high-profile, deadly wrong-way crashes, local officials didn’t start talking about ways to prevent them until the summer of 2010.

    To learn more, check out our two-part series about wrong-way crashes. And check back here when we see how the pilot program is working to stop wrong-way drivers.


  • Nickel and dimed: Find out which gas stations have faulty pumps that overcharge motorists

    Valero Station in San Antonio

    If you’ve ever suspected your neighborhood gas station is stiffing you at the pump, you might already know you can file a complaint with the Weights and Measures Program at the Texas Department of Agriculture. The agency’s inspectors verify the accuracy of gas pumps.

    But which stations rack up the most complaints, flunk the most inspections and cost consumers the most money?

    The answers to those questions lurk within inspection data collected by state employees. The information is public. But like many government agencies, Weights and Measures hasn’t been analyzing its own data to look for trends that could help consumers make informed decisions.

    So Express-News Data Editor Joe Yerardi downloaded a publicly available copy of the inspection data and took a look at it for himself.

    The result was an interesting Sunday story that told readers things that state officials probably should have known themselves.

    Joe learned that one out of five stations in San Antonio had at least one pump that failed inspections. The pumps that are more likely to shortchange customers are owned by one of the biggest players in town: Valero Energy Corp.

    Joe mapped the locations of the stations and their inspection results, so anyone can check out the track record of their neighborhood gas station.

    Joe told me it took nearly four weeks to work on the story. One of the difficulties he faced was sharing what he learned with state officials, who hadn’t analyzed their own database of inspection reports.

    “It’s not their job,” Joe said, describing the bureaucratic mentality of some government workers. “It’s not what they’re paid to do.”

    Not every government agency is like that, but it’s not an uncommon problem. When I found a San Antonio police database that documented every vehicle pursuit involving officers, I was a bit surprised to learn that SAPD had never analyzed the information, even though it shed light on an important public policy issue.

    These agencies probably paid some poor data-entry monkey to go through each paper report and type the details into a spreadsheet or database. Why not go the extra step and analyze that information?

    Joe described these kinds of stories as “low-hanging fruit” for journalists, who can step in and analyze databases that agencies aren’t scrutinizing.

    “If they would go above and beyond their actual jobs, there’d be less of a need for reporters,” he said.

    (Photo credit: Derrich on Flickr)

  • How two small-town reporters in Kentucky took down a corrupt sheriff

    Journalists Adam Sulfridge and Samantha Swindler were both in their 20s and working for a small newspaper, the Times-Tribune in Whitley County, Kentucky, when they began investigating rumors about Sheriff Lawrence Hodge and his ties to drug dealers.

    How two small town reporters in Kentucky took down a corrupt sheriff   John TedescoFederal agents had investigated Hodge in the past but their inquiry fizzled. The sheriff was too insulated and powerful. People were afraid to talk. The feds thought Hodge was untouchable.

    He wasn’t.

    Check out this fantastic 60 Minutes video about how two young journalists were able to do what the feds couldn’t — bring down a corrupt sheriff.

  • How Mexican cartels launder drug money in San Antonio (Hint: Check the North Side)


    View Larger Map

    Maggie’s was the place to go in the 1990s if it was late and you were a hungry college student (like me). Nestled among the car dealerships on San Pedro Avenue outside Loop 410, the two-story restaurant was open late and offered some of the best shakes ever.

    Maggie’s permanently closed, reopened as a Champ’s restaurant, closed, then reopened in 2009 as Barbaresco Tuscan Grill and Enoteca, a swanky Italian restaurant.

    Barbaresco was a lot different from Maggie’s. On its opening day, guests were treated to readings of Romeo and Juliet while an attractive, semi-nude woman lay on a table, her body strategically covered with pasta.

    Brothers Mauricio and Alejandro Sánchez Garza had bought the old Maggie’s restaurant, along with numerous other businesses and properties in San Antonio, and heavily invested in it. Now the Drug Enforcement Administration has accused the brothers of using those businesses to launder millions of dollars in drug money from Mexican cartels.

    Express-News reporters Jason Buch and Guillermo Contreras wrote about the money-laundering case in a story published Sunday. The article detailed key properties and businesses the brothers were involved in, which is a hell of a way of grabbing readers’ attention. A lot of people like me remember Maggie’s. Finding out the building is tied up in a federal money laundering investigation definitely piqued our interest.

    “It allowed us to see, literally see, how everything was connected.”

    I sit next to Jason in the newsroom so I talked to him a bit while he worked on the story. One difficulty he faced was keeping track of the tangled spider web of people, businesses and properties connected to the Mexican brothers. To make sense of everything, Jason used a plugin for Microsoft Excel called NodeXL, which allows you to create a social network diagram.

    Jason typed in more than 250 entities and their related entities in a spreadsheet, and NodeXL displayed that information in a graph that showed spokes between each connection. Here’s an example of the main players and entities:

    Money laundering social network analysis

    “It allowed us to see, literally see, how everything was connected,” Jason told me.

    In complicated stories with lots of moving pieces, building a chronology to keep track of key events is also important. By chance I learned about a new open source, interactive timeline tool by Zach Wise and told Jason about it. Timeline is also based on information contained in a spreadsheet. In Google Docs, you type in the dates and chatter, provide links to photos, videos, or other media, and then Wise’s Timeline tool uses javascript to display an interactive chronology that you can publish on a website.

    Jason and Guillermo were going to have to write a chronology in their notes anyway. Wise’s Timeline tool let them share their relevant information with readers in a really compelling way. Their timeline looks drop-dead gorgeous. And they linked to federal documents in the timeline, so readers could see the allegations for themselves.

    Maggie’s is long gone. But it was fascinating to see what became of it.



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