Ben Welsh named visiting senior data journalist at Stanford’s Big Local News

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A leading computational journalist is joining a Stanford-based project that collects, cleans and shares data so that journalists can discover and write stories about government policies that affect their local communities.

Big Local News will host Ben Welsh, the data and graphics editor of the Los Angeles Times, as a visiting senior data journalist, with support from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation. 

Welsh will lead development of Big Local News’ Data-Plus membership program, which is intended to help financially sustain the project. He also will mentor staff, Stanford students and JSK Fellows. 

This is the latest chapter in JSK’s Local Impact Partnership with Big Local News, which began in 2018. Previously, the partnership supported a senior visiting data journalist who worked with Big Local News to standardize and analyze data from localities across the United States as well as train newsrooms to use the data. More recently, JSK and Big Local News partnered last year to award 11 reporting grants that supported data-driven stories related to the pandemic. 

“Our two programs share a commitment to supporting local newsrooms that have the will, but often lack the resources, to find and produce important data-driven stories for their communities,” JSK Director Dawn Garcia said. “We are delighted that Big Local News and Ben are teaming up to accelerate these efforts.” 

Big Local News Director Cheryl Phillips, the Hearst Professional in Residence at Stanford, said: “Big Local News is thrilled to have Ben Welsh work with us for a year. We believe his work will directly lead to a sustainable effort to support local data-driven journalism.”

The Los Angeles Times, where Welsh has worked for 14 years, also is supporting this new effort by becoming an inaugural Data-Plus member. 

“When developed in the public interest, technology empowers us to create journalism that is more ambitious, more empirical, more impactful and more sustainable.” Welsh said. “I’m honored to play a small part in these essential institutions coming together to advance the data journalism movement.”

Welsh also will contribute to another Big Local News project: Agenda Watch, a drive to mine the mountain of documents generated by local government meetings. Initial media partners in that effort include the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, Bay City News, the Associated Press, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Welsh is co-founder of the California Civic Data Coalition, a network of journalists and computer programmers dedicated to opening up public data. He has contributed to numerous open-source software projects building tools that make it easier to access data from federal and state agencies. 

Last year, Welsh helped launch a collaboration of news outlets across California to combine COVID-19 data-gathering efforts. The coalition built the most comprehensive source on the spread of the virus in the state, which was used by newsrooms throughout California, as well as public health researchers. Big Local News was a member of the coalition.

Big Local News also has collected numerous COVID-19 data-sets, which it updates regularly. This data can be accessed from Open Projects at https://biglocalnews.org. One recent project, supported by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, collected school enrollment data from 30 states down to the school and district level. Partners in this project included OpenNews, EdSource in California, the Colorado News Collaborative, The New York Times, and Professor Tom Dee from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. The data was made available in multiple ways: in the BLN platform; through a Stanford archive link; and via the Datasette SQL analysis tool, created by Django co-founder Simon Willison. The unique collaboration resulted in stories and an academic paper examining kindergarten loss in schools because of the pandemic. All published on the same day.

Originally from Swisher, Iowa, Welsh co-founded The Los Angeles Times’ first digital projects team, before moving into his current role. 

His data-driven reporting, frequently in partnership with others, has led to reforms in the Los Angeles Fire Department’s 911 system, overhauls of the city’s firefighter recruitment and hiring practices, a revamp of a broken building inspection program, the replacement of the Los Angeles Police Department’s public crime map, as well as increased fines against exploitative landlords. As a result, two municipal fire chiefs and the Los Angeles fire marshal have left office.

Projects he’s contributed to have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Library of Congress’ Innovation Award, a Knight News Challenge grant and several other prizes for investigative reporting, digital design and online journalism.

 As part of the Stanford Journalism and Democracy Initiative, Big Local News compiles, processes and shares difficult-to-obtain government data. Its products have empowered newsrooms to produce accountability work on a wide range of topics, including criminal justice, public health, housing and education. 

Big Local News has partnered with multiple news organizations on data-driven efforts, including the Community Law Enforcement Accountability Network and the California Reporting Project. CLEAN is an effort to collect police misconduct records, transform those reports into usable data for journalists, as well as share public-facing data with everyone from journalists to public defenders and advocates. Partners include the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Foundation. Already, the work has resulted in investigative journalism from the data. 

In another collaboration, Big Local News, the Associated Press, Census Reporter, Poynter and the JSK Fellowships created the Census 2020 Data Co-op to provide processed Census data to journalists, train journalists on how to use Census data and provide customized resources. The co-op, supported by the Google News Initiative, has released an embeddable Census map that enables journalists to examine very local trends and use the tool to provide local views of a Census map.

The Times is joining as an inaugural affiliate of the Big Local News Data Plus program, funding the creation of a new membership system to help sustain the effort. Reuters is also an inaugural Data-Plus affiliate. This effort is being kick-started by an Impact Grant from The Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

Welsh will lead the project as a visiting senior data journalist. Hosted by the JSK Journalism Fellowships, he’ll spend time mentoring staff, JSK fellows and students.