Data journalism aids in understanding VP nominee Paul Ryan

Oct. 17, 2012
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Supporters of Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, gather at the Holiday Inn Express in Janesville, Wis. to watch his debate with Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/The Janesville Gazette, Mark Kauzlarich)
In this memo to The Associated Press staff, Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes recounts how an investigative reporter skilled in data journalism, including AP’s “Overview” technology, was able to efficiently mine timely information from a mountain of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

As a member of Congress, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan wasn’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But that didn’t stop Washington’s Jack Gillum when Ryan was chosen as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Gillum, the data journalism expert on Washington’s investigative reporting team, went to every federal agency  -- whose files are covered under FOIA -- for copies of letters or emails that might identify Ryan’s favored causes, names of any constituents who sought favors and more.
Over the next seven weeks, the stack of pages the government sent to Gillum steadily grew taller on the corner of his desk -- to 12 inches, then to 2 feet and higher. For each file, he scanned the pages electronically and uploaded them to the AP’s internal “APDocs” Document Cloud server, an online tool for analyzing and sharing large sets of documents. Among other tricks, the server can organize and reorganize files by date, subject, category or other field, and it performs optical character recognition to let us perform keyword searches on hot-button issues, such as "food stamps" or "Recovery Act."
By the time Gillum sat down to write, he had received more than 8,900 pages (and counting, since the government continues to send additional documents every day). Gillum also loaded the documents into the AP’s “Overview” technology, which can weed out irrelevant correspondence. For instance, Gillum cared little about 300 pages on a constituent's problems with a credit card company, but he was interested in letters asking for agriculture subsidies. Overview was able to do this quickly and easily by bunching similar documents together.
That helped Gillum identify instances in which Ryan had sought government funding in the form of expanding food stamps, federally guaranteed business loans, grants to invest in green technology and money under President Barack Obama’s health care law -- the kinds of government largess that Ryan is now campaigning against. Gillum already reported separately in mid-August that Ryan, despite his denials, had lobbied for millions of dollars in economic stimulus money, even writing Vice President Joe Biden for help.
The new story, which moved  the day after Biden raised the subject in his debate with Ryan, showed a far more expansive pattern of such requests, which Ryan’s spokesman said represented a member of Congress helping people in his district.
Gillum’s story earned strong play online in The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Dallas Morning News and scores of other newspapers.
For effective use of data processing programs to show that Ryan took advantage of the same government programs he opposes, Gillum wins this week’s $500 prize.

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