Every now and then, a beneficial and purposeful project comes along that even experienced journalists have to acknowledge contains some truly stellar work. One such project in Arkansas has yet to disappoint: It's called ArkansasCovid, and it gives viewers covid-19 data out the ears . . . for free.
Back in March, when covid-19 led to the shutdown of many state businesses, former journalist Misty Orpin saw a need for clear and understandable public health data tracking the virus. And she spoke to Arkansas Press Women last week about her experience following that data and putting together the arkansascovid.com website.
The woman who created ArkansasCovid discussed her beginnings, with her family working for a weekly paper called The Atkins Chronicle. She went on to learn the importance of community journalism and hyper-local information.
Misty Orpin took those values and put them to use with ArkansasCovid, making a database for county-by-county historical stats to track changes in covid-19 infections and deaths. She said it felt important to create a historical record of the data state officials were giving people. That way, she could hold the state accountable for that information.
While she didn't have time for long-form journalism, the creator of ArkansasCovid decided to give people visual information in easy-to-digest Twitter chunks. Context was key, and she the keymaker.
When Ms. Orpin got into the nitty-gritty details of her creation, the conversation seemed to take on a deeper tone. For starters, she said it was important to her to include prison inmates in her data. She didn't want to separate them without a good reason. Next, she wanted to establish that she wasn't a "mouthpiece" for the governor or the state health department, just a dedicated journalist working for herself.
And work she did. The data maestro didn't take a day off. She crunched numbers for several hours each day so people could stay informed. Because at their core, that's what journalists do. It's what drives them to come into the newsroom each day, pick up a notepad, and run out the door chasing a story.
Although Ms. Orpin said she blocked trolls on Twitter profusely (a side effect of taking part in that social beehive), she also tried not to be condescending.
Eventually the project grew beyond the abilities of one person to manage, so she handed it off to a journalism professor and his students at the University of Arkansas. Now they run ArkansasCovid.
One of the students working on ArkansasCovid also spoke at the Arkansas Press Women virtual event. Her name was Mary Hennigan. She did the demographic work for ArkansasCovid, breaking down data into race, gender, age, facility type and more. Ms. Hennigan said she used census data to pair race and ethnicity with covid-19 infections and deaths. With that, ArkansasCovid was able to show infection rates by population. Arkansans could see the disproportionate impact on minorities.
The charts and data this student was able to put on display using digital tools available was something else. And the charts shared on ArkansasCovid were also translated into Spanish.
Rob Wells spoke next. He's an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas. And he helps oversee the ArkansasCovid team.
Professor Wells used ArkansasCovid as an opportunity to teach data journalism, an important part of the field that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves.
One of his biggest contributions was streamlining the whole process. Professor Wells described that as spending less time punching numbers into the system and using programming tools to scrape data automatically into ArkansasCovid.
The professor said it took about three weeks of nonstop coding to get the process of updating numbers on the website automated. So now, when the Arkansas Department of Health releases its numbers each day, Professor Wells' students get an email. From there, it doesn't take nearly as long for those numbers to show up on the website for Arkansans to see.
As the semester draws to a close, others have taken notice of the good work at ArkansasCovid and provided funding for it to continue. Professor Wells said the project has received financial support from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Arkansas Community Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.
That funding will allow ArkansasCovid to keep running after finals week has ended and ensure interns are paid through December 2021, the professor said.
One of those interns, Katy Seiter, took the Arkansas Press Women through screenshot after screenshot of data and code she'd been working on. It's all the behind-the-scenes stuff most folks don't think about when they go visit the website to get their daily numbers. But someone has to work to put all the data together in an easy-to-read format. Ms. Seiter is one of those people.
Ms. Seiter and Ms. Hennigan have worked incredibly hard on this project and gained invaluable skills in the process. They're going to make a future newsroom really proud when they join the team. We got a chance to ask them how working on the project has changed what they want to do in the future. Ms. Hennigan said she started as a business major but quickly decided that wasn't what she wanted to do. And working on ArkansasCovid has changed her track.
"I look at numbers. I dream of numbers. I think now this is where I am," she said.
As for Ms. Seiter, she's developed a passion for data journalism and wants to stick with it, she said. Good fortune to each of them going forward.
And this project has left a pretty big impact felt across the state. In fact, Ms. Orpin said the Biden-Harris transition team has used the project to discuss what's going on in Arkansas with respect to covid-19. (At some point while he was talking, Professor Wells had a black dog walk behind him on the Zoom call. We have since confirmed the dog's name is Timber, and the professor reports he's a good boy.)
It was great to get a behind-the-scenes tour and hear from the people responsible for ArkansasCovid. It's a stunning piece of community journalism, and everyone involved should be proud.