“If data should be public, push for it”

[tweetable alt=”Don’t be discouraged by missing or incomplete data. If it should be public, push for it. #ddj #data”]“Don’t be discouraged by missing, incomplete or unavailable data”[/tweetable], Julie Patel says. When looking into why developers in DC need government subsidies to build projects? Patel and her colleagues kept pushing. The story behind the for a Data Journalism Award nominated ‘Deals for Developers’.

 Deals for Developers - WAMU Investigation

“The inspiration for this project was a question: DC has one of the hottest real estate markets in the country so why do developers need government subsidies to build projects?”

$1.7 billion subsidies

“The project unearthed the influence land developers attempted to exert on elected officials in Washington D.C. who approved millions of dollars in subsidies for the developers. To do that, we examined thousands of pages of city documents on 110 developments receiving city subsidies in the past decade, more than 130 developers, and nearly 100,000 campaign contributions for council, mayoral and other local races over that time. Our investigation found the city awarded $1.7 billion in subsidies in the past decade — and 40 percent went to ten developers that donated the most campaign cash over that time. What’s more, less than 5 percent of the subsidies went to the city’s poorest areas with a fourth of the city’s population, and developers failed to deliver on pledged public benefits for at least half the projects examined.


“What helps make the data accessible is that it was turned into both a searchable table thanks to the help of NPR’s news apps team and a visualization thanks to a WAMU employee. The two tools allow readers to explore the connections, and see which officials received the most campaign cash and which developers donated the most.”

Getting the data

“We received incomplete campaign finance data from the city government so we used business registration, property appraisal and other documents to complete it. We compiled data on requirements of development deals from legislative and zoning records and tracked the outcome by visiting some of the 100-plus projects we examined and by using some city documents.”

Tools used

“We used Excel and Open Refine among other tools. The reporters created audio and text pieces, one of our designers created an interactive node graph, another created bar graphs and the NPR Apps Team‘s editor created a searchable database.”

“The hardest part of the process was making and confirming connections between developers and their affiliates because we were dealing with nearly 100,000 rows of data that was missing information and included some incorrect information.”


“Don’t be discouraged by missing, incomplete or unavailable data. If it should be public, push for it from the agencies you’re requesting it from, of course. But look for alternative ways to get the story or obtain data. For instance, you can collect your own information and build your own database through other documents on on-the-ground reporting.”