By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A landmark in database reporting


The Times' Google map of Massachusetts water facilities

Every editor in the United States today should be poring over the database that the New York Times assembled — and put online — to accompany its horrifying story on the disastrous state of our public water supplies.

Good as the Times story is, the paper’s decision to go open source with its data is what really makes this stand out. Searchable and state and by zip code, you can look up water facilities and their inspection records in recent years. If I were an editor, I’d want to make sure I got to the bottom of every one of those inspection reports before a citizen journalist could beat me to it.

In the Times story, by Charles Duhigg, we learn about the family of Jennifer Hall-Massey. She, her husband and their two boys live near Charleston, W. Va., where coal companies have so polluted the water supply that people’s teeth are wearing away and simple exposure causes painful skin rashes. Hall-Massey blames a number of deaths and illnesses on the water supply as well.

My former Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi has done some groundbreaking reporting on coal and the environment for the Center for Public Integrity. Highly recommended.

Water is one of the great untold stories in environmental journalism. I spent a good part of the 1980s covering the Woburn toxic-waste case, made famous in Jonathan Harr’s book “A Civil Action” and a subsequent movie.

Unfortunately, the families whose children suffered from leukemia and other health problems were not able to prove their case, and ended up reaching an unsatisfying settlement with one of the suspected polluters, W.R. Grace.

Because of Woburn and Love Canal, water was a big story in the late 1970s and ’80s. It’s time for it to take its rightful place again. The Times’ package should be just the beginning. Fortunately, it has provided the tools necessary for every news organization to find out what’s happening locally.

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  1. LFNeilson

    Database reporting is not something which may or may not point to a problem. I looked at two sites in Wilmington. Both are water treatment facilities, although the report has the Butters Row facility listed as a wastewater treatment plant, which it is not.
    Wilmington has now gone completely onto MWRA water.
    The manner in which it should be of concern is probably in a study of cancer incidence in town. Obviously there was a problem. a. Wilmington has a high incidence of cancer. and b. They went on MWRA, because of polluted water supplies. The story isn’t so much in the treatment plant as in the industries in the area.

  2. Steve Stein

    That’s a nice use of maps.

    Maybe it’s too old to show on the map, but in Acton we still are feeling the effects of a WR Grace plant that contaminated 3 of 6 wells in the early 80s. It doesn’t show up as a current polluter since the plant is closed down, but it’s still a problem and the wells are still not on-line.

  3. fbteditor

    LFNeilson’s observation concerning Wilmington – the neighboring town to Woburn – shows the limitation of a national media outlet attempting to localize a problem that concerns the country using reference data that doesn’t go beyond the raw numbers. For example, while the map does pinpoint the Olin Corp. site, it only indicates that the location does not have any violations in the past two years. It doesn’t tell a reader who may be unfamiliar with the location that it’s a federal Superfund site where a myriad of firms have dumped tons of chemicals for 30 years that has polluted the ground water supply. Going by the map, Olin appears to be a benign hole in the ground! Yes, the map is great use of technology and is reader friendly. But the data is worthless without someone – hopefully the local media – providing the history and analysis to explain what that blue dot really means on the NYT’s interactive map.

  4. LFNeilson

    Dan, forgive my garbled sentence structure in my first comment. Let’s say: The matter of concern is found in a study of cancer. . .

    That said, I agree with Steve Stein. Click on the map and it brings up some stats. But take care in interpreting them.

  5. Newshound

    Larz is correct about database reporting. One of the largest “sanitary” landfills in Massachusetts borders a treasured water supply in Fall River. Reportedly, so far so good. But long term should be a concern.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    The Times database is a starting point. All I’m saying is that local news orgs ought to take it and report on what the deal is with every one.

  7. BigBlue

    What is “open source” about this? They used open-source tools, true, but that has zero effect on the end result (proprietary software and databases could have done the same thing).

    What they’ve done is put a searchable database online. I’m not minimizing that, but unless we can somehow mash the data, correlate it with other databases, etc., your use of the term “open source” is suspect.

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