Here’s what Sean Adkins took away from NICAR14

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Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of reports from three Digital First Media journalists who attended NICAR14 through the Digital First Represents program.

Late last year, a worker at York Hospital (in Pennsylvania) erroneously injected a patient with radioactive white blood cells, a pharmaceutical designed to detect infections.

Aside from some minor swelling, the patient showed no ill effects. The patient received the same level of radiation a person receives in a year from the natural environment.

Much of my reporting for that story came from data that I pulled from U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website.

At the time, I was not aware of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ website — a repository of hospital reviews sorted by area.

Data improves health coverage

During his turn at the NICAR 2014 microphone, Peter Eisler of USA Today took those who attended the “Wading through the sea of data of hospitals, doctors, medicine and more” session on a tour of this website and that of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Using tips passed along by Eisler, I learned that officials had uncovered a medical screening exam violation at a local hospital — data that could lead to a follow-up to my original story.

Both Eisler and Dan Keating of The Washington Post explained ways to download the physician compare database.

For example, with the help of ArcView and U.S. Census data shape files, I can map doctors by their age, specialty and school in which they graduated. Taking income data, I can layer the map to show where younger/older doctors practice. Such a map could also do the same for specialities.

Do plastic surgeons practice in more affluent areas of the York County area? What sections of York County are home to the fewest doctors?

Data improves public housing coverage

Mapping, as I learned in mini boot camp at NICAR, can and should be applied to multiple topics.

Tim Henderson pointed out in his session — ”How to uncover inequity and swindlers in subsidized housing programs near you” — that maps would be the ideal way to show the disbursement of the public housing across an area.

After haggling with HUD for Section 8 housing data, Henderson said he was able not only to produce a map of public housing, but he also painted a clear picture of an economically distressed area.

He was able to use census data to gauge minority population and rental percentages to peer into the the availability of the affordable housing in a given area.

What Henderson found was that areas with little or no Section 8 housing and few rentals may discourage affordable housing. Also, he recommended looking at minority census tracts and mapping the affordable housing options.

Data improves education coverage

Full disclosure: I’m not an education writer. Sure, I’ve covered school-related stories as they’ve crossed into my beat, but my focus has never been standardized tests or the mapping of school bus routes.

That’s going to change.

Coulter Jones of WNYC New York Public Radio pointed out some great ideas for education-related stories that I plan to report.

For example, during his session, Jones suggested that journalists request attendance records. This data may be used to check fire alarm/student ratios and which schools have the worst problems with attendance.

He urged us to request the records of school bus drivers, such as accident reports and criminal histories.

Another good suggestion was to overlay health inspection data with school attendance to see if students are getting sick after a failed inspection.

Why stop there? That’s just a look at how data can improve Sean’s beat coverage. Check out Chrys Wu’s compendium of slides and handouts from NICAR to see how data can help upgrade your beat.  

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