Last week, while on an weeklong furlough from my employer, I created an online database of Cincinnati City Council election results by ward. I’ve now launched that project publicly at CincyPolitics.org. The data’s not very deep yet, and the site still has limited functionality, but it’s the first web site I’ve ever created entirely from scratch. I’ll expand it in the future as time allows.
At some point, I’ll write a little more about how I created it. But for now, a little background on why I created it.
As a newspaper reporter whose computer-assisted reporting skills were self-taught, I mostly used database analysis as a tool to research articles. I started with Microsoft Excel and worked my way through Microsoft Access and two different flavors of SQL, SQL Server and MySQL. I dabbled in enough PHP to get up a few WordPress sites, and to create some behind-the-scenes databases for storing and searching public records. Somewhere along the way, I learned some mapping skills, primarily with ESRI’s ArcGIS programs, and became enamored with all kinds of geographic-based data: census counts, property values, fire incidents, subsidized housing units and sex offenders.
But as a former politics reporter, I especially loved voting results. Every Election Day, I go in to work late at night, when they’re done counting the ballots. I get a precinct report, cudgel it into a database, and analyze where the votes came from. I’ll work through the night and have a story online by the time most people wake up the next morning.
The analysis can produce some pretty maps for the newspaper, but I’ve long struggled with how to make them interactive for the web. We have some talented Flash designers in house, but their skills are in the design, not in database work. So the online maps we’ve done have been pretty one-dimensional — and require Flash designers to hand-enter election results.
The solution, I thought, was some kind of dynamic database platform that would have the infrastructure in place and allow me to plug in the numbers on deadline. So far, CincyPolitics.org is a pretty simple solution to that. I’m hoping it can get better. It’s mostly a learning project as I try to teach myself new web development skills.
That’s where computer-assisted reporting has been going for the last several years now — taking those databases we used to crunch behind the scenes and getting it out on a public platform so readers can see it for themselves.