• 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.

  • Google Refine: A tool for journalists looking for great stories in data

    Google unveiled a free tool for journalists who are interested in analyzing public data. Google Refine is a “power tool for working with messy data.” It helps import information and clean up data-entry problems that lurk in many government databases.

    Google Refine  A tool for journalists looking for great stories in data   John TedescoIt’s open to everyone but it looks like Google created this tool with an eye on computer-assisted reporting. Google’s introductory video touts “Dollars for Docs,” a data-driven story by ProPublica that showed how drug companies paid doctors to promote their products.

    Analyzing databases is a niche skill in newsrooms. Not all reporters are comfortable doing queries in Microsoft Access or sifting through thousands of computerized records, but those skills can really empower reporters who are trying to make sense of a complicated world. Columbia Journalism Review published a great profile of Daniel Gilbert, a reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier who came across a potential blockbuster of a story about unpaid royalties from mineral rights. But the issue was so complex he didn’t know how to unlock it.

    His editor persuaded the newspaper’s publisher to pay for Gilbert to attend a database boot camp at Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Gilbert learned skills that helped him piece together the gas royalties puzzle. The result: “Underfoot, out of reach“, a series of stories that showed how millions of dollars owed to landowners had been tied up in an “an opaque state-run escrow fund, where it has accumulated with scant oversight for nearly 20 years.” Gilbert won the Pulitzer Prize.

    I haven’t played around with Google Refine yet, but I hope it encourages more journalists to take the plunge into computer-assisted reporting. There are some amazing, data-driven stories to be told out there. We just need more people to tell them.

    (h/t: Jennifer Peebles)