Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Old Problems, New Attention - BATTLE IN THE BARRIO part 2/4

The Fisk Generating Station, Pilsen, Chicago.

“I have a hard time believing if these plants were located on the north side of the city, that they would not have already been cleaned up by now.”
- Rev. Patrick Daymond, Sixth Grace Presbyterian Church, in testimony before the Chicago City Council, during hearings on the Clean Power Ordinance.

NOTE: The following is the second of a series of four stories about the environmental and health impact of coal fired power plants on densely-populated, low income Chicago communities. You can read part one, "Four Sisters, One Rare Disorder," here. More parts of this series, along with visualizations and some interactive elements, will be posted in the coming weeks.

Part One: Four Sisters, One Rare Disorder
Part Two: Old Problems, New Attention

Part Three: The People VS the Bottom Line

Part Four: Hopelessness and Hope in Pilsen

Visualization - Is there injustice in Pilsen?
Visualization - Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood struggles with pollution
South-side children have greatest exposure to lead in Chicago, health department data shows

They come in at the same time every day.

The lumbering train pulls more than 100 of them, each full with black coal rocks, up to the Will County Generation Station, where the contents are unloaded, mixed, and put on several barges and sent up river.

The barges meander up the Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal, where they dock alongside the Crawford and Fisk coal-fired power plants.

The plants are owned by Midwest Generation, a Delaware limited liability company, solely owned by Edison Mission Midwest Holdings. In turn, Edison Mission Midwest Holdings is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Midwest Generation, EME, LLC. That limited liability company, in turn, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Edison International.
According to Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings, Midwest Generation was “formed for the purpose of owning or leasing, making improvements to, and operating and selling the capacity and energy of, the power generation assets it purchased from Commonwealth Edison, which are referred to as the Illinois Plants.”

At the plants, the barges are relieved of their burden and go back down the canal as empty shells. But the coal – that gets turned into electricity. The Fisk and Crawford plants, located in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods on the lower west side of Chicago, respectively, together generate about 858 megawatts of power.

It’s also turned into pollution. The plants released 3,372 tons of nitrogen oxides, 1,583 tons of soot, and 5 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2008, by the EPA’s count.

On May 24, things did not go as planned at the Crawford and Fisk plants.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Upheavals, earthquakes, and my social media experience on Al Jazeera English

It almost didn’t happen. I was due to be a part of a discussion on Al Jazeera English (AJE), the international news channel, about the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year reign in Libya.

A half-hour before show time, I receive the following email in my inbox from a producer:

“We had an earthquake and all over the city people are standing outside their buildings,” the producer wrote. “I’m guessing we won’t get back in in time for today’s show. Perhaps we’ll shift our schedule to do it tomorrow, or another day.”

A quick look on the USGS website revealed a 5.9 earthquake had struck Virginia, shaking buildings in D.C. and New York. The Stream, the cutting-edge AJE news program that blends new and traditional media, might miss the historic event in Libya.

First, some background.

Al Jazeera English is an international news channel that is broadcast worldwide from Doha, London and Washington D.C., to an estimated audience of 150 million viewers in 100 countries.

Being headquartered in the East, Al Jazeera was uniquely positioned to report on the Arab Spring uprisings. Indeed, it capitalized on this major news event, and the AJE internet stream gained more than 1.6 million American viewers during the first months of the revolt.

The White House also took notice, and included AJE in its diet of international events coverage. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took notice of the network, and in a briefing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised the quality of reporting on the international channel.

“You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners,” she said.

Perhaps no other AJE program has gained as much momentum during the Arab Spring as the new media experiment The Stream.

Broadcast daily from Monday through Thursday from the Washington D.C. studio, the Stream hosts a panel of two to three guests who have some kind of stake in a major news event. But that’s where the similarities between this and other current events programs end.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

U of I talks with prominent social media researchers now online

It’s been a year since the University of Illinois hosted the “Year of Social Media,” a lecture series that hosted people at the forefront of the social media revolution.

During the series, Fernanda B. ViĆ©gas from Google spoke about bringing powerful, yet simple to operate, computer visualization programs to the masses. An Oxford professor postulated whether the internet is really a “fifth estate,” or if cyber utopianism is a “net delusion.” And the Onion web editor talked about how a social media conversation doesn’t always yield positive results.

“The Onion is very much not interested in having a conversation with its community of viewers and listeners in social media,” the Onion’s Baratunde Thurston said during his lecture, before playing an Onion sketch of a television news anchor being berated by audience members through social media.

Videos of all the talks are now available on the event’s website. The seven lecture videos total more than ten hours of footage.

“We have invited prominent researchers who study social media, leading figures from the social media industry, and people who embody social media success stories,” the YISM website reads.

The program was organized by Karrie Karahalios, a computer science professor and graduate of the MIT Media Lab, and Christian Sandvig, an Associate Professor of Communication, Media & Cinema Studies, Library & Information Science. Sandvig is also a Research Associate Professor at the Coordinated Science Laboratory.

Abstracts of the speakers, obtained from the YISM website, are listed after the break. For the full videos, please visit

Monday, August 22, 2011

Four Sisters, One Rare Disorder - BATTLE IN THE BARRIO part 1/4

From left: Lizette, Martha and Gloria Herrera, outside their family home in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. After a lifetime of living near the Fisk coal-powered plant, Martha and Gloria have developed lupus. Martha’s daughter, Lizette, also is showing early signs of the disease.

NOTE: The following is the first of a series of four stories about the environmental and health impact of coal fired power plants on densely-populated, low income Chicago communities. It's called "Battle in the Barrio: the Struggle in Chicago's Pilsen Neighborhood Against Pollution." More parts of this series, along with visualizations and some interactive elements, will be posted in the coming weeks. The series is part of a journalistic research project that culminated in a master's project for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Part One: Four Sisters, One Rare Disorder
Part Two: Old Problems, New Attention
Part Three: The People VS the Bottom Line
Part Four: Hopelessness and Hope in Pilsen
Visualization - Is there injustice in Pilsen?
Visualization - Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood struggles with pollution
South-side children have greatest exposure to lead in Chicago, health department data shows

For most of their lives, two of the four Herrera sisters -- Gloria and Martha -- thought that the hardest part of living in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago was staying safe from crime.

On a mid-July morning, as a fast-moving thunderstorm poured cool rain over the neighborhood and provided relief from the most oppressive heat wave in years, the two sisters reflected on some close calls.

“We were never allowed to hang out on the sidewalk,” Gloria, who is now 43, remembered of her childhood in Pilsen.

Outside, thunderclaps ricocheted off of the old brick houses, off the pastel-painted facade of restaurants with names like Nuevo Leon, La Casa Del Pueblo and La Cebollita, off murals of Che Guevara, Jesus and Mexican cowboys.

The day before, the National Weather Service measured a high temperature of 99 degrees from the Chicago O’Hare International Airport, with 78 percent humidity. The temperature, measured by the television station the sisters had muted while they talked, fell to 71 degrees. The raindrops splashed on the porch they had spent their summers on as children.

When Gloria wanted to play with neighborhood friends, they would have to get permission from their parents to come over – and then if they did get permission, her friends could only sit with Gloria on the porch. “Two houses down, there were gangbangers in that house. And there were gangbangers across the street on the corner house.”

“We had, like, four different gangs all around us,” said Martha, 54.

The streets belonged to the gangs. There was, however, something that belonged only to the children in the neighborhood.

“That’s why we played soccer,” she said. “Because it was ours, you know.”

The nearby playground of Benito Juarez High School provided a level of safety from the industrial streets of Pilsen, and a place where children could be themselves. Gloria and Martha still had to keep on their toes on the nine-block journey between their home on Carpenter Street and the high school.

“We would be coming back from soccer practice at five in the afternoon, or seven in the evening, and the gangs would be shooting at each other, and we had to crouch down and run home for two blocks. We would be hiding between cars just to get home safely,” Gloria said.

And even at home, the threat sometimes lingered.

“We would be sitting here watching TV, and you would hear gunshots,” she said. “We would throw ourselves on the floor.”

“That’s the life we learned to live. And our kids, also, same thing.”

Gang violence is an ever-present part of life in Pilsen, a sooty, post-industrial barrio on Chicago’s lower west side. But just in the last several years, a very real threat has trumped the Herrera’s safety concerns about gang violence. Unlike a stray bullet from a gang-banger’s gun, it could not be dodged by hiding behind cars.

Gloria remembered the exact day it started: Feb. 7, 2001.

“I remember, because it was very traumatic for me,” Gloria said.

She was attending a banquet for La CLASA, the Chicago Latin American Soccer Association, when she couldn’t take a full breath. “I just couldn’t breathe,” Gloria said, “So I was rushed to the emergency room.”

Gloria was diagnosed and treated for pneumonia and sent home. On July 7, she suffered a heart attack at work. A co-worker took her to the University of Illinois Medical Center, where hospital staff administered a battery of tests and determined that Gloria’s liver and kidneys were shutting down. Doctors gave her three days to live.

“It was our 9/11,” Martha said.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Google scholarship signals growth in data journalism field

Google announced Monday that it would give $20,000 to journalism students who can mash-up computer science and enterprise reporting.

The scholarship program is a joint venture between the Associated Press (AP) and Google, and will be administered by the Online News Association (ONA).

“The AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship program will provide $20,000 scholarships for the 2012-13 academic year to six promising undergraduate or graduate students pursuing or planning to pursue degrees at the intersection of journalism, computer science and new media,” Google and the AP wrote in a press release. “The program is targeted to individual students creating innovative projects that further the ideals of digital journalism.”

On the official Google blog, ONA executive director Jane McDonnell said the goal of the scholarship was “to shine a light on the hidden treasures in schools across the country—the digital-minded journalists who will be the future of our industry.”

More information is available at

The AP-Google scholarship is one of the latest initiatives to bolster the ranks of journalists with data specialists who can use computer skills to sort, filter and describe important trends hiding in a sea of public data. Those trends can be a springboard to launch investigations into a wide variety of issues, including poverty, health, crime and social justice.

The need for those types of computer and analytical skills is only increasing as governments begin to publish on the internet troves of documents that were previously difficult to access.

Brant Houston, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation chair for enterprise and investigative reporting at the University of Illinois, wrote in the summer 2010 Nieman Reports that data journalists could help improve the nation’s investigative reporting strength.

 “Digital media’s capabilities might provide ways to hold public agencies accountable while expanding journalists’ role as community watchdogs,” he wrote.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Breaking down the downgrade: distilling the message with visualizations and context.

Markets, both domestic and abroad, spent no time to react on the news that Standard & Poor’s, one of the three major companies that rate the solvency of nations, had downgraded the United States credit rating from AAA to AA+.

S&P released its report on the downgrade on Friday, Aug. 6, after American markets were closed. Overseas markets were the first to move, with Japan’s Nikkei index dropping 2.2 percent. A sell-off sent China’s mainland Shanghai market down 2.2 percent. The country’s Hang Seng index flirted with a 7 percent drop before settling down 4.5 percent for the day.

When it came time for America’s markets to open the following Monday, the Dow lost several hundred points in the first hour of trading, and ended down 512 points 4.3 percent. It was the biggest one-day drop since Dec. 1, 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported. It’s among the top 10 biggest one-day DIJA declines ever, the Journal wrote. Crude oil prices also fell amidst concerns about lower demand.

But what does the S&P report actually say? How can we distill and best represent it? The following word cloud identifies dominant words in the document, with the size of a word relating to its presence in the document.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Visualization shows expansion, peak and fall of the American newspaper

A new visualization from Stanford University charts the expansion of printing presses as early settlers headed west, as well as the peak and decline of the American newspaper.

It’s also highly interactive, letting users scroll back and forth through the American history of newspapers, pausing for textual markers at historically significant times. Users also get a breakdown of the publications serving a particular town, and can filter papers by the language they were published in or by publication frequency.

This was a major undertaking from the Rural West Initiative of Stanford University, which involved tapping into a directory of some 140,000 American newspapers at the Library of Congress.

“It would be fairer to call this a ‘database’ visualization than an omniscient creator’s-eye view of the growth of American newspapers,” the Rural West Initiative writes on an introduction to the visualization. “There are known (and surely unknown) omissions from this list, as well as duplicate entries, and entries that are similar and can appear duplicative.”

The visualization accompanies a report by the Initiative which indicates that while metro journalism has been on the decline for decades, rural journalism is still alive and thriving, although the job makes for “a lean living” for rural journalists and most papers are “an advertiser or two away from red ink.” Many reporters and some editors are fresh out of J-school.

Geoff McGhee, the Bill Lane Center creative director, and Judy Muller, a contributing editor at the Rural West Initiative, will both be on the Salt Lake City NPR station KUER to discuss the report August 8, at 10 a.m. pacific time (12 p.m. central, 1 p.m. eastern). It will also be simulcast on the SiriusXM Public radio channel.

Listeners can call the station at (801) 585-WEST or submit questions at The station website has a live stream and will archive the show as a podcast.

The Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University lab tweeted of the interactive map, “How cool (or sad?) is this?” That’s because the dots peak at about 1920, and decline to the number we see today. Most news begins life in a newspaper news room, according to a 2009 Pew study on the Baltimore news ecosystem.

“Fully eight out of ten stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information,” Pew wrote. “Indeed the expanding universe of new media, including blogs, Twitter and local websites—at least in Baltimore—played only a limited role: mainly an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places.”

The Initiative’s report seems to support Pew’s conclusions.

For some original reporting about the St. Louis newspaper market, including several visuals about the rise and fall of newspapers in the city, along with a report about a nonprofit newsroom trying to buck the trend, read “Funding Challenges, Long-term Aspirations of a Nonprofit Newsroom.”