Today we are introducing our Nerd Blog, a place to talk about what programmer-journalists at ProPublica are working on, announce newly-launched news applications, and to hear from technically-minded readers, as well as our fellow nerdy journalists. We’re going to be writing about each of our projects as we release them, and flagging open source tools we’ve found useful.

So what the heck is a “news application”? It’s an interactive web page that uses software instead of words and pictures to do journalism.

Our team of programmer-journalists makes interactive applications based on data both culled from public sources and collected by ProPublica’s investigative reporters. Some of our work is published alongside stories. Other projects are themselves the main product of an investigation. (See highlights of our work.)

An increasing number of news outlets are building teams like ours, which are integrated into the newsroom and editorial process. This blog is meant to be ProPublica’s contribution to the growing conversation around news applications (which is also sometimes called “interactive news,” and “computational journalism”).

As a group, we’re always learning about how to do news applications projects, and how not to. Here’s what is playing inside our heads while we’re planning a news app:

  • We tend not to simply put pretty interfaces around publicly available data, but instead analyze the data, clean it up, and mash it together with other data to help tease out trends and outliers. Our Recovery Tracker tracks stimulus spending in thousands of counties in the U.S. It predates, and covers more data, than the government’s own Recovery.gov.
  • We use comparisons to build narratives: For example, our Unemployment Insurance Tracker exposes how skyrocketing unemployment, and in some cases poor planning, have left some states’ unemployment insurance trust funds facing insolvency – while other states have relatively healthy programs.
  • Our projects should also help readers find what’s relevant to them and their communities: How does my county compare to the next county when it comes to stimulus revenue? How does my mortgage servicer compare to others when it comes to completing loan modifications for underwater homeowners?

At ProPublica, we believe in sharing. That’s why our team releases much of our software code as open source, free for anybody to take or modify. (A list of our latest open source projects are on the right of this page, and can be found in our github repository.) We also make our data sets available to other news organizations and publish recipes, detailing how others can follow-up on our investigations. Our Recovery Tracker has been used as a data source in over 100 local stories about stimulus funding.

If you’ve used our data or our open source software to build something cool, please let me know and we’ll highlight it here. And if you want to be notified whenever we publish a news app, sign up for our data list in the right-hand column of this page.