Journalism in the Public Interest

The ProPublica Nerd Blog

Why Develop in the Newsroom?

If you’re a software developer looking to make more of a social impact with your talents, there are plenty of exciting opportunities for you to break into the field of journalism! But what’s it like?

Writing software in a journalistic environment is still pretty new so different newsrooms do it differently, but we’d like to share with you what it’s like to be a news applications developer at ProPublica, why we all love the work we do here, and why we think newsrooms are an exciting place to be right now.

Here’s our list of 10 reasons why programmers should join us and develop for the newsroom:


How Well Did FEMA’s Maps Predict Sandy’s Flooding?

When Superstorm Sandy struck New York and New Jersey last year, the accuracy of FEMA’s flood-risk maps for the area, used to help guide development and set flood insurance rates, varied widely. In some cases, the data behind the maps dated as far back to the 1970s. Click a county below to see more about FEMA’s data for that county.

How We Analyzed FEMA’s Risk Maps

Today we published a story and interactive news application revealing why the flood risk maps in effect across New York and New Jersey predicted Sandy’s flooding so inaccurately. Instead of the latest technology available, which would have painted a far more accurate picture of the risks for homeowners and flood planners, FEMA’s maps relied on a patchwork of technologies, some dating to the 1980s.


China’s Memory Hole: The Images Erased From Sina Weibo

ProPublica has been collecting images that have been deleted by censors from Sina Weibo, “China’s Twitter,” since May. We gathered a team of people proficient in Mandarin to read and interpret 527 deleted images collected during a two-week window this summer. The images provide a window into the Chinese elite’s self-image and its fears, as well as a lens through which to understand China’s vast system of censorship.

Data-Driven Journalism’s Secrets


Hassel Fallas is a data journalist at La Nación in Costa Rica. She’s visiting ProPublica as a 2013 Douglas Tweedale Fellow from the International Center for Journalists and as ProPublica’s October 2013 P5 Resident. (Krista Kjellman Schmidt/ProPublica)

I’ve spent the last few weeks in the U.S. on a Douglas Tweedale Memorial Fellowship with the International Center for Journalists, talking to some American newsrooms about how they approach data-driven journalism. Here’s a bit about what I’ve learned.

The best way to start doing data-driven journalism is simply to start. When you’re just getting started, you really have nothing to lose. With every mistake, you gain experience and knowledge for your personal growth and to improve the quality of the journalism you are practicing.

Meet our New OpenNews Fellow


Brian Jacobs, ProPublica's 2014 OpenNews Fellow (Photo courtesy OpenNews)

Knight-Mozilla OpenNews announced five new fellows for 2014 today at the Mozilla Festival in London.

We’re excited to announce that Brian Jacobs will be ProPublica’s OpenNews fellow in 2014.


How the NSA’s Claim on Thwarted Terrorist Plots Has Spread

In the months since revelations about NSA surveillance began, intelligence officials and members of Congress have claimed that the agency’s efforts have thwarted 54 terrorist attacks. But a review of official statements shows the NSA has been inconsistent about how many plots have actually been thwarted and what the role the spying programs played. Despite a lack of evidence, Congress and the media have rushed to repeat the most extreme version of the NSA’s claims.

Announcing the Nonprofit Explorer API

We launched our Nonprofit Explorer app in May, combining several IRS open data sets to create an easy-to-use tool for journalists and others who want to research nonprofit groups. Today we’re releasing an update to Nonprofit Explorer, with two new features: First, we now include data for organizations that reported finances on Form 990-PF. That means nearly 100,000 private foundations and charitable trusts are now included in the Nonprofit Explorer database.


How Much Acetaminophen Are You Taking?

Many common over-the-counter drugs contain acetaminophen. Taking more than one at the same time increases your chance of “double-dipping”—accidentally overdosing.

Technical Difficulties on iPhone and iPad App

Update 9/25 Apple's approved our fixed version of the app and they're now available in the App Store.

Is the U.S. Government Behind “Torsploit”?


Is an exploit targeting Tor users sending identifying information to a server owned by the U.S. Government? (Image: Flickr)

There’s a lot of chatter on the Internet about a Firefox security vulnerability that has been used to target users of the Tor Browser Bundle, the most commonly-used way to use the Tor anonymity network. Malware that took advantage of this vulnerability was recently discovered on several prominent “hidden services” — websites accessible only through a secure, anonymous Tor connection. The exploit has been given two nicknames: “Magneto,” a phrase that appears inside the exploit’s JavaScript code (a commonly-used method to name viruses and exploits) and “Torsploit,” a portmanteau of “Tor” and “exploit.”

Why You Should Be our 2014 OpenNews Fellow (and Join the Epic Team of Awesome)

For the second year, the ProPublica News Applications desk has a unique opening for a ten-month-long fellowship as part of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews program. The OpenNews fellow sits with us in our newsroom and works on everything our full-time news apps developers do, from daily graphics to larger apps and open source projects.

Where Do “Good” Software Practices Fit Into News Applications


How should we think about "good" software practices in the newsroom? (Image: Flickr)

When building news apps, good software practices don't go out the window; but something else becomes more important — the content and the story.


Has the Gov’t Lied on Snooping? Let’s Go to the Videotape

Since Edward Snowden leaked documents detailing the NSA’s surveillance programs, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that part of his congressional testimony was “erroneous.” But that’s not the only questionable comment by administration officials.

Upton: A Web Scraping Framework


Today we're announcing a new open-source project that aims to make web scraping simpler. It's named Upton, after labor journalist Upton Sinclair, because the project started as part of our intern investigation.

Upton is a web-scraping framework packaged as a RubyGem. It abstracts away some of the common parts of web scraping so that developers can concentrate on the unique parts of their project.

Transcribable: Free the Files to Go!

Today we’re releasing a new open source project, which will enable any organization with a DocumentCloud account to do crowdsourcing using documents.

Since we wrapped up our Free the Files project after last year’s U.S. election, many people and organizations have asked us how they could build their own web applications like Free the Files to crowdsource their caches of documents. The full Free the Files codebase is undocumented, a bit messy and isn’t easy to deploy in environments other than our own, so we decided to extract the salient bits into a Rails plugin we’re calling Transcribable.

Creating Games for Journalism


We as journalists can learn a lot from video games. They can help players explore unfamiliar worlds and experience stories, almost literally, through the eyes of another person. Designed well, video games guide players to feel emotion and conflict, as well as learn the intricacies of complex subjects and systems. They engage users in a highly meaningful, memorable and influential way.

But video games don't require an expensive console system or high-end computer. They can be powered up on our smartphones and on Facebook, and many people who would never call themselves gamers are playing games and getting familiar with how the medium works. And it's not all just escapist fun — there's a community dedicated to exploring how games can be used in education.

As journalists, games can be a great tool for us to use to reach, inform and engage our readers.


Timeline: America’s Long Civil Rights March

ProPublica has created a timeline to appreciate the key moments and often differing aims of the government’s judicial and legislative branches in the ongoing clash over civil rights.


Tracking Intern Lawsuits

The complaints against Condé Nast, Warner Music and Gawker Media are the latest in a rising tide of lawsuits brought by unpaid interns, many of which are still in progress.

P5 Resident Aram Chung


ProPublica news app developer Al Shaw walks P5 resident Aram Chung through the Free the Files project. (Krista Kjellman Schmidt/ProPublica)

This week’s P5 Resident is Aram Chung.

Aram is currently a dual master’s degree candidate at Columbia University’s joint journalism and computer science program. Aram, who is from Seoul, South Korea, graduated with a degree in mathematical sciences with a minor in industrial design at KAIST in Daejeon, South Korea, where she was also a reporter and editor at the KAIST Herald, the English-language campus monthly newspaper.

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