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Pop quiz: Where do your elected representatives stand on gun control? Not sure? Our nifty interactive can help!
After the Newtown shooting in December, we had a meeting over the phone to discuss our coverage. We decided to have a two speed approach: a quick reader-driven story about why they do or don’t own guns (which we’ve written about a bit on this blog), and a deeper-dive look at the anticipated legislative issue that this and other recent shootings seemed to be bringing about, which we launched Monday as www.ThisIsYourRepOnGuns.com. The project idea grew out of the simple problem that not many people can name their representatives off the top of their head, let alone know their exact stance on gun control or how to get in touch to make their voice heard.
Eliza Shapiro, Abby Haglage and Caitlin Dickson did some awesome reporting for all 530+ representatives, digging through their voting records and previous public statements to distill their position to one of four categories: Opposes reform, Supports reform, Swing vote, or Unclear. We kept track of the sources, too, so that we could present representatives’ statements to the reader when the final thing was done.
Brian Abelson was also around to rig together @RepsGunTweets (since renamed @YourRepsOnGuns), which served as both a tool to monitor reps’ statements to see what category they fell into, as well as an open feed for anyone interested in the topic to follow on Twitter. Read about how that was built in this blog post.
The interactive currently stacks up the number of reps in each category and lets you do a combination filter by different criteria such as chamber, party and state. You can see things like how likely legislation is to pass each chamber and where different states stand. Importantly, too, you can put in your address read information on your House representative and two Senators. Using information compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, it gives you their phone, fax (for those that prefer the fax), address, twitter, website and Facebook page so you can get in touch with them. We also pulled in each representatives NRA grade and their rating from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence to give more context to their legislative history.
My favorite part of it though, is that we’ll be updating it as the gun debate goes on. We’ve already received emails from readers who have contacted their reps with statements that we’ll add and one person sent us a local news story from their congressperson that will move him from the Oppose reform to a Swing vote. We’ll mark these updates on the landing page so people can follow along and readers can leave their email to be notified of updates.
We also did this as its own URL similar to how we did www.HavingTroubleVoting.com. As a resource and tool that was going to hopefully have a long life, we felt an easy to remember and dedicated page showed our readers that this was something they could keep coming back to.
Under the hood
The hardest part of this was getting all of the data from multiple different sources into one nice database. We had a few different people researching, different numbers coming in from different places, and multiple editors editing. We used Google Spreadsheets and good spreadsheet etiquette to make sure people were marking the categories the same way and joined them in R.
To make the stance information simple to update, the map copies that information from the main table on load instead of storing it separately with the map data.
The main page uses Isotope.js, which we’ve used a bunch before. But this was a little tricky because we needed to sort them into four columns. Fortunately, there’s some crazy extension for Isotope that lets you do just that. The harder part was figuring out how to get it to display top to bottom instead of bottom to top. But buried in the “Tests” documentation was a page on how to make your elements stack right-to-left for languages like Hebrew and Arabic. It includes the settings to rotate the positioning, which worked.
The only fancy mapping feature is if you click on a district, the map automatically pans and zooms to fit the founds of that district. This is done using the ST_Envelope() function in PostGIS through CartoDB. ST_Envelope() returns the bounding box of a given feature which you can sent to Leaflet.js’s fitBounds() method to pan and zoom to that box. The only problem to be aware of is ST_Envelope() will give you an array of x and y values but fitBounds() is expecting the format to be in y then x (lat, then long). As long as you reorder the elements in your coordinate array, Leaflet will be happy.
Getting the aesthetics of the map right was a little tricky. I wanted to make sure that a highlighted feature’s outline appears above the other features but below its own fill so you get a bright white border and then a subtler inner border. If you follow the symbol drawing order and compositing option rules in CartoCSS it becomes manageable.
From the failures folder
Here’s what the original mock-up looked like, which we weren’t too far off from. I reworked the top nav hierarchy into two main buttons, added more color and turned the rep detail elements into three columns instead of rows so it was more compact and graphic.
Some newsroom insight into how we built our tool to track where your Representative stands on guns. Check it out if you haven’t already!
Also, that P.S.
1. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system.
2. Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system.
3. Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system.
4. Direct the Attorney General to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks.
5. Propose rulemaking to give law enforcement the ability to run a full background check on an individual before returning a seized gun.
6. Publish a letter from ATF to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers.
7. Launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.
8. Review safety standards for gun locks and gun safes (Consumer Product Safety Commission).
9. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.
10. Release a DOJ report analyzing information on lost and stolen guns and make it widely available to law enforcement.
11. Nominate an ATF director.
12. Provide law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations.
13. Maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime.
14. Issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.
15. Direct the Attorney General to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies.
16. Clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes.
17. Release a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities.
18. Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers.
19. Develop model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education.
20. Release a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental health services that Medicaid plans must cover.
21. Finalize regulations clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements within ACA exchanges.
22. Commit to finalizing mental health parity regulations.
23. Launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health.
President Obama released a video “explaining a comprehensive effort to come up with a broader set of serious proposals and encouraging Americans to continue their participation in this important process.”
Our last Wednesday Workshop focused, in part, on ways to get readers more involved in our stories. When news of last week’s awful shooting reached us, we wanted to open up discussion on the role of guns in America. On our Tumblr we asked readers how the shooting should be covered and many requested we steer clear of the politics and instead opt for a genuine discussion on gun control.
Gun control is a complicated issue in this country and nuanced issues can be at odds with the tools of data visualization. That is to say, data visualization and data reporting are often marked by being extremely comprehensive and boiling that comprehensiveness into one easily understandable image, graph, or layout. Doing anything comprehensive on an issue as complex as guns in our society, on deadline no less, would be tricky, and we’re not ones to put data out there that’s misleading or inconclusive.
But the other tool of digital journalism is being able to present a great deal of information in one place, which does work for a nuanced subject. We wanted to engage our readers to tell the story of guns in America in a way that showed the issue’s complexity. We posed the question as “Why do you own a gun?” or “Why don’t you own a gun?” On our site we, we set up two forms that let readers easily complete the sentence “I own a gun because…” or “I don’t own a gun because…” and displayed their responses for readers to sift through.
It’s like the digital equivalent of Man on the Street reporting, where you go and ask people on the street their opinions on an issue in the news and write up their quotes in an article. Let’s call this a Man on the Internet story, or to be gender neutral, Person on the Internet (Internet Vox Pop maybe? I’m open to suggestions).
We published the article Monday evening and less than 24 hours later we have over 900 responses — over 500 from gun owners and over 400 from non-gun owners. We have some thoughts on how the two sides explain their position but, for now, we’ll let you read through and absorb it on your own.
We’re collecting and categorizing the responses, so look for that article on the Beast later in the week.
Under the hood
We used a customized Google Form to handle the response collections. This is a nice tutorial on how to embed Google Forms into your site with custom styles and functionality.
We’ve used custom Google Forms before, on our other shooting project actually, for a newsapp that lets readers put in their address and it finds news accounts of multiple-victim shootings near them. A Google Form then asks what they remember about the incident and collects their responses in a spreadsheet. We published some of the most moving responses that I think is worth a read.
For this project, though, I was running into trouble putting in two custom forms on one page. Since I only had a day to build this, I ended up sequestering the two forms to separate HTMl pages and iframe-ing them into my main page. This was nice because it ensured the two forms didn’t interfere with each other and since the pages were all on the same domain, I didn’t have any cross-origin issues and didn’t loose any functionaity — when you submit one form, that action bubbles up to it the parent frame and grays out the other form.
I originally wanted to do something more animated similar to this seminal piece of crowdsourced dataviz from 2008. I like how its animation gives the project energy but it comes at the cost of not being able to scroll through the responses on your own. After some thinking, I couldn’t figure out a way to have both a sit-back-and-let-the-responses-flow experience and a I-want-to-dive-into-these-responses-and-scroll-through-them-all experience. The latter is obviously the more useful for the reader, so I went with that. The election interactive is also a bit different from this since most of the emotions on each line are of the same category, so it’s not really hiding anything by not letting you scroll. For our project, each response brings its own nuance to the debate so you don’t want to hide any of them. If you have any thoughts on how to improve the presentation, I’m at @mhkeller.
Brian had the great idea that we let this conversation be medium agnostic. So in the story dek we let people know they can continue the conversation on Twitter with the hashtags #IOwnAGunBecause or #IDontOwnAGunBecause. I built some hooks into our Underscore.js templates that let us add selected tweets to our spreadsheet and display them with a Twitter icon and a link to the original tweet. That way we could pull in interesting responses from elsewhere and flag them as such. You can look at the formatHelpers object in app.js to see how it checks for content in the Twitter column and adds the image and link if it finds something.
As I’ve written, I’m a big fan of Miso’s Dataset.js, and that’s what we’re using here to pull the responses in from our Google Form Spreadsheet. Contrary to my previous post, this app does work off of a live Google Doc. I know, blasphemous. For a few workflow reasons we weren’t able to have a script download our spreadsheets and put them on a server like we did for HavingTroubleVoting.com where we had both rate-limiting and privacy issues.
That being said, we have been very closely monitoring the app to make sure it doesn’t get rate-limited and it’s been fine so far. I have a few lines commented out in the code that point to where we’d put a local CSV of the responses, so if the app went down, it would be back up in a minute or so. We also made sure not to ask for any identifying information so we had no privacy concerns. Now that we have close to a thousand responses, though, we might switch to local files so that the page loads faster. If we could have set it up to download automatically, however, that would have been our first choice.
One thing I added yesterday evening after we started getting a lot of comments was a way to filter by state. A lot of content can be overwhelming, so the more options you can give readers to drill down to a subset that might be more relevant to them, the more manageable the experience is and hopefully more engaging and memorable.