WNYC’s data team has tracked a lot over the years: cicadas, flood zones, and even wireless internet access on the subway. Now the station’s newest project, a community data experiment called “Clock Your Sleep,” aims to help New Yorkers monitor their sleeping habits.
Launched last Tuesday, the sleep study is part of WNYC’s ongoing data journalism expansion. Spurred on by the success of projects like last year’s cicada tracker, which got listeners up and down the Eastern Seaboard to keep an eye on last summer’s once-in-17-year swarm of insects, the station is increasing its data visualization and crowdsourcing efforts.
WNYC’s data efforts began almost by accident, five years years ago, when news director John Keefe decided to teach himself basic coding. Keefe enjoyed the process so much, said Jim Schachter, WNYC’s vice president of news, that he looked for ways to incorporate it into his reporting, eventually using his data visualization skills to investigate the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk campaign and its impact on minorities. “WNYC journalism changed the way this critically important topic was talked about in New York and the country,” said Schachter. “And when you have that kind of impact as journalists, you want to do it more.”
More data journalism also meant boosting WNYC’s coverage of extreme weather. The station created flood and hurricane zone maps during Superstorm Sandy that proved invaluable when New York City’s own evacuation maps crashed. And the New York Daily News embedded some of WNYC’s Sandy maps on its website, helping the station reach a much larger audience than usual. “The power of data journalism, the data reporting, and the visualization that grew out of that to really serve the public was just huge. It was a revelation,” said Schachter.
Data journalism is in the spotlight these days, thanks to sites like Ezra Klein’s Vox (which launched on Sunday) and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, and WNYC has responded by beefing up its data team. Over the past year, the station has hired producer Jenny Ye, developer Noah Veltman, and digital innovator Kio Stark in the brand-new role of senior producer. Jeanne Brooks, former digital director at the Online News Association, signed on as WNYC’s engagement specialist in March. And a section of WNYC’s website is now exclusively dedicated to data news.
The station’s amped-up efforts seem to be gaining traction; more than twice as many people signed up for “Clock Your Sleep” in its first three days last week than the station had expected over the course of the entire two-month project. WNYC declined to give specific figures but said that participants numbered in the thousands. The station sent out charts to participants on Friday, showing how individual sleep patterns compared with others.
Data reporting is now a key part of WNYC’s digital strategy because it works, Schachter said. The station’s seven-person data team is recruiting—they’re currently looking for a backend developer—and planning to develop “Clock Your Sleep” as a “project in a box,” complete with digital tools and a programming guide to help other media outlets recreate the project in their communities. WNYC will also soon revamp its School Book site—which helps parents assess the state of New York City schools—by making it possible for users to search for schools within a given distance of their homes. “In the same way that hurricane maps are an important public service, this is sort of an ongoing, lasting public service that the data news [team] operates,” Schachter said.
“If we try to compete by typing words against The New York Times, the BBC website, and the Guardian,” he said, “we can’t win that game.” But if WNYC combines audio with “powerful, data-driven visualizations and tools and projects, that’s a place where we can make a mark as a small and ambitious news organization.”