Derek Willis – Database Journalism at

Posted on 02. Oct, 2007 by in Politics

Introduction and Narrative: It was in graduate school at the University of Florida, studying journalism, when Willis found his passion with database journalism. He was taking a class of survey research, analyzing the results, which showed him how much information is already in a database or what could be construed as a database. What finally sealed his niche into database journalism was a conference of Investigative Reporters & Editors in 1994, “without the training and support they provide, I wouldn’t have the same career, they helped with classes and bootcamps in CAR (computer-assisted reporting). Willis worked at a paper in Florida and came to Washington in 1998 working at the congressional quarterly.

“If you are interested in data – the federal government is the largest producer of data there is, Washington is the place to work,” said Willis. After a brief stint at the Center for Public Integrity, Willis began working for the Washington Post newspaper only to move over to the website last February, stating that if you are working in database journalism the web is a better platform.

Main Goal: The basic philosophy for our information work is that there are a lot of databases that the public never sees the best or most useful versions of. Those versions are kept hidden for the people who use it or sell it. At the Washington Post online we try to put the best versions of a database in the public. What you see online is the best version we have, “we don’t hold anything back,” says Willis.

Recently the Post, for the first time, opened up a story on conditions in D.C. schools and published all of its data inviting people to dig into it and contact reporters with corrections or additions – things that we could never know about all the schools.

Notable Achievements: The schools project noted above is one of several database projects Willis has been a part of at the Post.

In another, the Post is tracking where the candidates have been and where they are going along the campaign trail – building a database of several thousand campaign appearances. Bloggers have used this to try and determine a candidates strategy, says Willis. “We ought to be able to know where the presidential candidates are going and we are building on the database, adding new features like speeches.

A Surprising Realization: You never know how other people will use your data.

That doesn’t happen very often in a print newsroom, but online pretty much every time you put up a data set you can be lead in any number of directions by readers.

If one person calls a newspaper reporter — doesn’t guarantee a response — for us — if we can do something and it can be a benefit to one person — its probably worth doing it. “I didn’t appreciate that aspect of it until it happened to us,” said Willis.

Biggest Practical Lesson/Mistake: What we really have not done as well as we could do, and are really working on, is a better visual component. There are things we have learned about the way you present info to people — it has to be done in a way that is accessible — not everyone is interested in the raw data.

Future Goals: We’d like to extend what we’ve been doing on a national level — down to the state and local level — there is no reason why our voter database should only be national.

I think the more — that we do in terms of putting information in people’s hands- – the closer it’s going to bring us into contact with people who want to do journalism whether they want to work with us or not. “It’s hard for me to see how getting more people involved is a bad thing for the news industry,” said Willis.

What do you hope to get from people attending this conference?

There are always going to be people who are experts on something specific. We need those people and journalism organizations need to know who those people are — so I like meeting those people.

I’m also interested in meeting anybody who is exploring in our area, to see if there are there ways that we can do things in different way.

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