CAR on the Map

Logo Uplink
In Uplink, volume 11, nummer 4 (1 mei 1999).

CAR report from the Netherlands

In the past five years, computer-assisted reporting in the Netherlands has developed from an obscure activity of an individual reporter to a formally established practice at two national newspapers. Mapping played an important role in breaking ground for the new professional methods.

To American journalists, it may seem obvious that in their jobs they can use a computer for many tasks other than writing a story. Computer-assisted reporting is something that has existed for thirty years and can be learned at seminars, boot camps and conferences. The situation in the Netherlands, and in the rest of Europe, is entirely different. Only very recently has computer-assisted reporting been gaining momentum in a few countries, notably Sweden and the Netherlands.

I did not know of the American tradition in 1993 when I used a database program (dBase III Plus for MS DOS) to enter the names and positions of more than 2,000 top officials of social-security institutions in the Netherlands. The Dutch parliament was doing a formal investigation on the execution of social-security laws, and we were curious about who actually governed these executing bodies.

From the database analysis, it turned out that there was a relatively small network of unknown officials that met several times a week to determine policy. These officials actually ran the social-security programs. I interviewed most of them and attended, with their permission, a few of their meetings. I wrote two background stories about their hidden world. The stories did not mention that a computer database was used preparing them. Only a few of my colleagues knew.

The database program had proved useful, but at that time I did not realize that the technique had the potential of being an integral part of everyday journalistic practice. That changed during the next year.

Mapping wish list

To everyone’s surprise, local parties gained a strong position in the March 1994 municipal elections. The polls had not predicted the rise of local parties because they concentrated on national trends and national parties. What we needed, but did not have, was a map showing the percentage of votes collected by local parties in each municipality. Speaking of maps, wouldn’t it be nice to show other aspects of election results as well, such as where particular parties were strong or where they had gained or lost the most votes?

That should be possible with a computer, I thought, though I had no idea how to do it. Our national editor encouraged me to find out. I worked largely on evenings and weekends to be able to present such maps on the day after the parliamentary elections, which were only two months away. I made myself familiar with the world of Windows, with Lotus Approach and with the newly discovered mapping program, Maplnfo. The application worked, and the day after the elections the newspaper ran a page containing eight maps showing the strength as well as gains and losses of the major parties. The maps were considered a big hit, an experience that would recur in later projects. The explanation, I think, is that the maps showed information not available in such a form before. Their value could be judged without knowing anything about the database analysis behind them.

The power of maps would prove to be an important argument for CAR in the Netherlands. The election maps were discussed on national television, and the professional magazine De Journalist wrote about them. We have repeated the map page with every election since and in full color since 1998.

Checking out America

During the project, I discovered the CAR tradition in the United States. As a reward for my work, my paper sent me to an IRE/ NICAR conference in San Jose, Calif., and on a subsequent tour of newspapers with extensive experience in conducting CAR projects. I was ready for a major leap forward.

Our editor was not. It turned out to be difficult to convince others of the potential of CAR. Such projects had to be developed alongside my “real” job of covering the transportation and infrastructure beat. But story showing that the poorest neighborhoods in the country were not situated, as many people thought, in the four biggest cities but in mid-size cities in the north and east of the country had a serious impact on urban policy. Teachers at the Utrecht journalism school and a few other journalists started to take notice.

A new editor in the fall of 1996 allowed a little more room to experiment: one day a week. In the meantime, Marjan Agerbeek, an education editor at Trouw, a smaller national newspaper, had discovered the power of CAR during a three-month stay at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Together with some colleagues, she conducted some smaller CAR projects, most of which included maps. In the fall of 1997 she did a big one: After a FOIA lawsuit, she acquired the exam results of secondary schools and prepared a supplement on the basis of those results, which until then had not been publicly available data. The project was widely discussed, led to a policy change of the education department and was nominated for the National Newspaper Award.

CAR advances

NRC Handelsblad published a second city neighborhood project, which covered 33 cities and presented full-color maps showing where the “good” and the “bad” neighborhoods were. The maps drew a lot of attention and were the theme of the first CAR seminar in the country, an afternoon gathering about the use of digital maps and mapping programs. About 40 journalists attended, but so far other newspapers have not picked up the use of these techniques. Trouw and NRC Handelsblad, however, recognized the potential of CAR and established a formal position for a CAR specialist this winter.

The Utrecht j-school ran a CAR class last year, and other schools are considering doing the same. The emergence of the Internet as a research tool has helped open people’s minds to other applications of computers besides word processing. Still, it remains a matter of endlessly repeating arguments and examples. In November 1998 the European Journalism Centre, which provides mid-career training, organized the first spreadsheet seminar for journalists. Seven journalists from three different countries participated.

Of course, compared to the number of journalists attending CAR conferences in the United States, the difference is huge. You have to realize that the pioneers in the United States started in the late 1960s. We started only five years ago.