Sandhya Kambhampati, who came to ProPublica Illinois from Correctiv, an independent nonprofit newsroom in Berlin, enjoys sifting through datasets to find a story. But for her, data is more than “data points and numbers. It’s people who are getting affected.” In the sixth of a series of Q&As with ProPublica Illinois staffers, Kambhampati talked with ProPublica Emerging Reporter Andrea Salcedo.
What inspired you to become a data reporter?
I’ve always liked numbers and statistics. As a child, my dad played NPR in the car, we watched the nightly news and we watched “60 Minutes” on Sundays. I actually wanted to be a “60 Minutes” reporter when I was little.
The reason I liked that type of reporting was because it was document-based. They had to sift through lots of data and find the story. I wanted to find a way to do that kind of investigative reporting. So when I got to college, I heard about this class being offered called CAR (computer-assisted reporting). I saw that it was a senior-level course and I thought, “That’s stupid. Why is it only senior level?” I thought, “OK. I’ve got to take this class.” I got into that class my sophomore year. That professor pretty much inspired me to continue on that path.
What are you interested in investigating with ProPublica Illinois?
I’m interested in higher education data, taxes and transportation. I’d like to dig into the systems in Illinois that people don’t know much about and help put the data that’s recorded or not recorded on these systems into context.
What are some underreported stories in Illinois that you wish would receive more coverage, especially after looking at so many datasets on a regular basis?
In general, hate crimes are not very well reported. Statistics on them are really bad and the record keeping is not consistently kept across police agencies.
How do you hope the stories that you help build at ProPublica Illinois will spark change?
For me, the most important thing is to have people understand the systems that are at play in the world, especially here in Illinois. I really think it’s important for people to understand how the tax system works, how property assessments work or how hate crimes are recorded. To me, it’s rewarding when a person can understand the system and the flaws within the system. That’s a lot of the reporting ProPublica does. We find the good and bad parts of the system.
How would you explain your job as a data reporter to the general reader?
I take databases, spreadsheets or documents and put them into a spreadsheet or vice versa. I look at them — the broad picture. I chop them up into little pieces and analyze the data and I find the little examples that we can use in reporting. Eighty to 90 percent of my job is cleaning data, getting data out of poorly formatted spreadsheets and wrangling it into a database that’s clean and that we’re able to actually analyze. Once I’ve got data in that format, I’m able to ask questions and interview my data just like I would with a human source. Once I interview the data, I collect those results, I talk to sources, talk to experts and then go out and write my story or work with another reporter.
I really want people to know that what I do is not some sort of wizardry. I want people to understand that the data often leads me to my sources, but it’s also the other way around, where sources lead me to datasets. That’s what I like the most about my job. That I’m able to work with numbers and I also get to work with people, which is the best of both worlds in my opinion.
How do you use data in your regular life?
I organize my life with spreadsheets because why not? I actually have several spreadsheets for general life usage. I have a spreadsheet of all the things that I have in my apartment for when I move. I have a list of all the places I’ve visited, a list of all the flights I’ve taken and a general packing list so that every time I don’t have to create a new file. I also have a spreadsheet for all the ice cream places I visit. And I have a list of all the books that I have read in the last year. Spreadsheets are great.
What data reporting techniques would you like to experiment with at ProPublica Illinois?
I use statistics on a daily basis, but I’m interested in looking at other ways that we can use engagement with data, new ways of telling stories with data. At the crux of every story, people need to understand that there are humans being impacted, and that’s what I always want to keep in mind. It’s not just data points and numbers. It’s people being affected.