Thursday, September 15, 2011

You’re not a newspaper, you’re an intelligence agency for the people: musing on the “Page One” documentary.

Media and culture columnist David Carr, left, meets with media desk editor Bruce Headlam, right in the
Magnolia Pictures documentary "Page One."

When the New York Times unveiled the porous pay wall, it showed the world an experiment to find a potential model to fund journalism: If you read more than 20 of our articles a month, we’re going to need some kind compensation.

When that news organization announced in July that its combined paid digital readership was near 400,000 after just four months (a figure that includes Kindle users), bloggers and media analyst began to speculate that NYT’s plan was working.

Some of these same people pointed out that those digital subscribers may only bring in $100 million, whereas the entire revenue for the Times is near $2 billion. For comparison, digital advertising yields $350 million.

Critics pointed to this fact and cried that the Times was changing dollars for pennies. Yet other analysts insisted that since digital subscribers can now be quantified and targeted, digital ad revenue would likely see an increase. (It’s accepted that a person who pays even $1 for a magazine or other print item is much more valuable to advertisers than a person who picks up a free publication.)

The documentarians making the movie “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times” had unlimited access to the Times during filming, and they used this to set up the tension behind that business move. As the movie slowly made its way across the United States, it meandered into our beloved local art theater just in time for a documentary film festival on Sept. 11.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What improved word clouds reveal in Obama, Bernanke jobs and economy speeches

The above is a word cloud using President Obama’s Sept. 8 address to Congress. As is customary with word clouds, the more times a word occurs in a text, the larger the font size in the cloud. Even if you weren’t aware of the nature of the speech, it’s obvious from the cloud that Obama’s address to Congress dealt with “jobs” in “America.”

But word clouds have limits. Seth Duncan, analytics director for the digital public relations firm WCG, wrote on the blog in 2010 that the simplicity of the word cloud could contribute to a decline of reading comprehension. In his post, “Word Clouds and the Cognitive Decline of PR and Marketing,” Duncan wrote that he strongly believed “that the word cloud is the biggest enemy of deep reading and lowest form of artificial intelligence in marketing and PR.”

“You can read the content very quickly (because they don’t contain much information) and they have a unique look. I also think that word clouds can provide useful information for SEM or SEO planning. But people are fooling themselves if they think that a word cloud offers a satisfactory summary of hundreds or thousands of pages of text,” he wrote.

NYU political science PhD student Drew Conway has a similar, but different beef with word clouds. Conway looked at a word cloud, essential a plot of words in three dimensions (x, y, and font size), and saw a missed opportunity. “They are meant to summarize a single statistics—word frequency—yet they use a two dimensional space to express that,” he wrote.

His solution came from his background in statistics, which oftentimes compares two sets of data. For his improved word cloud, he compared two speeches by political figures and used the x-axis to describe the similarity between two speeches. To accomplish this, he used the free, open-source statistical programming environment R, which has a data-mining and graphics plotting features, along with some custom coding.

But what to compare the Obama jobs speech to? That same day, bankers and business executives at the Economic Club of Minnesota waited eagerly to hear the Fed Chair Ben Bernanke outline what the Fed would do to alleviate economic concerns.

Obama and Bernanke were speaking to two very different audiences, and had different objectives. Obama was speaking to a Congress hell bent on being re-elected and an anxious, under-employed American public. Meanwhile, Bernanke was speaking to titans of industry and banking. These differences shouldn’t be an excuse not to compare the two speeches; rather, both speakers are components of the administration weighing in on essentially the same issue.

Differences in their speeches could signal a difference in opinion and discord about an appropriate response, while similarities could point to ideas with a measure of political support. If nothing else, it’s worth looking at how two high-ranking officials in an administration tailor speeches on economic issues to two different audiences.

Here’s what those two speeches look like in Conway’s “better word cloud.” Click to see the plot in a higher resolution.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Hopelessness and Hope in Pilsen - BATTLE IN THE BARRIO part 4/4

An anti-Fisk poster hung by activists in a Pilsen Thrift store.
“And every morning was a requiem
or the feast day of a martyr -
the priest in black or red,
cortege of traffic, headlights
funneling through incense
under viaducts. While my surplice
settled around me like smoke
my father rode the blue spark
of a streetcar to the foundry
where, in the dark mornings,
the cracks of carbonized windows
flowed with the blood of stained glass.”

- Excerpt from “Autobiography,” a poem by Stuart Dybek, a Pilsen native and a 2007 recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant.”
NOTE: The following is the last in 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." The series is a journalistic project that culminated in a master's thesis 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

If you have the time, Maria Torres has stories.

Since she became a community organizer a decade ago, helping gather signatures for petitions and lately rallying support for the Clean Power Ordinance, she’s collected quite a few.

Mostly, they involve people who’ve suddenly come down with asthma, respiratory illnesses, rare forms of cancer, lupus and other medical abnormalities.

“I have a family that lives right in front of the Perez school,” she said. “Her son was just diagnosed with asthma, and has to use an inhaler. And he’s real little. You feel for them, because they tell you how hard it is for her son to use the inhaler. It’s really hard for him because he’s a little kid and he doesn’t know how to. He just developed it, and didn’t have it before. I feel for them, I really feel for them. And it scares me.”

In addition to the verb “scares,” as in, “it scares me,” and “freaks,” as in “it freaks me out,” she frequently uses the adjectives “spooky” and “weird” to describe the magnitude of health problems she’s heard of while knocking on doors as a community organizer in Pilsen.
There’s the story she heard about an 80-year old woman, who lives on Morgan between 18th and 19th streets, not far from the Fisk plant, and got a routine X-ray for breathing problems.

The doctors asked the woman’s daughter, who took her mother in to be examined, if the mother was a regular smoker.

“She’s never smoked a day in her life,” Torres said. “But her lungs were all black.”

Thursday, September 8, 2011

South-side children have greatest exposure to lead in Chicago, health department data shows

This interactive heat map, compiled using Chicago Department of Public Health data, GIS files, and Google Fusion, shows where Children with the highest rates elevated blood lead levels in Chicago live. Data is from 2010.

Chicago Department of Public Health data shows that children in the poorer, industrialized south of Chicago are more likely to have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies than children in more affluent neighborhoods.

The data, obtained by a FOIA request from the health department, shows the levels of lead the agency found in children 17 and under in the city of Chicago. Most children tested for lead, however, were under 6 years old.

“An EBL or elevated blood lead level, is defined… as the child’s highest venous test with a result of 6 or more micrograms lead (Pb) per deciliter blood,” the health department wrote.

According to the EPA, there is no safe level for lead in the human bloodstream. At 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, children can develop symptoms such as “lowered intelligence, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, and antisocial behavior.”

The most recent results are from 2010, but the file contains annual results back to 2005. They were compiled with the help of an epidemiologist in the department.

“Multiple blood lead tests were determined using an algorithm that matches children by name, date of birth and sex, while allowing for common typographical and data entry (eg, reversing first and last name) errors for blood lead tests conducted within a calendar year,” the health department wrote.

In the interactive heat map at the top of the post shows the rate at which children in each of Chicago’s 77 communities reported elevated levels of lead.

The Englewood community has the highest EBL rate, where 9.15 percent of the children who were tested for lead came back with a positive EBL. Neighborhoods in the north end of Chicago had EBL rates between 0.8 percent and 3.31 percent.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Visualization - is there injustice in Pilsen?

This visualization was produced as part of a series about Pilsen, a Chicago neighborhood, and its struggle against pollution. Parts one, two and three of that series have been published on

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The People VS the Bottom Line - BATTLE IN THE BARRIO part 3/4

“Decisions regarding whether or not to proceed with the above projects or other approaches to compliance remain subject to a number of factors, such as market conditions, regulatory and legislative developments, and forecasted commodity prices and capital and operating costs applicable at the time decisions are required or made… Due to existing uncertainties about these factors, Midwest Generation intends to defer final decisions about particular units for the maximum time available. 
- Excerpt from page 92 of Midwest Generation’s 2010 report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, form 10K.

NOTE: The following is the third installment in 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." Part one, "Four Sisters, One Rare Disorder," is available here. Part two, "Old Problems, New Attention" is available here. A visualization describing Pilsen's struggle with pollution is here.

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

In a dimly-lit space in the back of a Pilsen café known for its fruit smoothies, a dozen Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) activists and organizers huddled over coffees and discussed upcoming plans for an annual community festival, Fiesta del Sol.

A Pilsen tradition for the last 39 years, Fiesta del Sol is an event featuring local art vendors, Mexican food, carnival rides, soccer games, and a chance for local organizations to boost donations and deliver information to the public.

This year, as in years past, Midwest Generation was one of the lead corporate sponsors for the event, and included among a group of sponsors under the banner “Pilsen Neighborhood Community Counts.”

“Let me just say one thing,” Jerry Mead-Lucero said. “There was some discussion about whether we should do something at the Fiesta because of the whole connection with Midwest generation. What I’ve been suggesting is I don’t want to completely piss off Pilsen Neighbors about having a booth there, so I’m not recommending we do something like a direct action in a Fiesta.”

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Visualization - Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood struggles with pollution

The Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago faces unique challenges in terms of environment and health. It retains some of its manufacturing base from when it was an industrial center for Chicago, yet it is primarily residential and now houses a large Latino population. The combination of a dense population and high emissions mean that pollution for the neighborhood is a major concern, as the above visualization demonstrates.

This visualization is part of the series "The Battle in the Barrio: The Struggle in Chicago's Pilsen Neighborhood Against Pollution." Part one, "Four sisters, one rare disorder," is here. And part two, "Old problems, new attention," is here.