USC’s Crosstown Project Turns Big Data into Local News

Gabriel Kahn says his data project, Crosstown, delivers “the kind of information that allows citizens to be the squeaky wheel.”

Kahn, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, and his team are developing Crosstown to analyze and publish data on “core quality-of-life issues” such as traffic, crime and air quality.

The goal: to make large data sets useful on a local and even hyperlocal level.

“Part of it comes from my frustration with the way I see that crime is reported in Los Angeles,” said Kahn, Crosstown’s Founder and Editor-in-Chief. “The city of Los Angeles is about 500 square miles. The county of Los Angeles Is like 2,500 square miles. The Los Angeles agencies are reporting their statistics on a citywide basis. My neighborhood is up 10 percent in crime. The city is down 1 percent. These are very different experiences that people are having for a variety of reasons. So I wanted to give people some ability to understand their particular situation and relate to their community.” (See Crosstown’s interactive crime map here.)

The Crosstown staff at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism makes data digestible and relevant to Los Angeles neighborhoods.

The pilot project, limited to the Los Angeles area for now, considers its primary audience to be the general public. But it’s also providing ammunition for community media outlets that don’t have the wherewithal to do such number-crunching themselves.

“We see the other local media using this data to bring more narrative and texture to these stories, and we see the individual citizen as being able to use this and essentially take a thermometer reading of their neighborhood on a regular basis,” Kahn said.

… [W]e see the individual citizen as being able to use this and essentially take a thermometer reading of their neighborhood on a regular basis.

Professor Gabriel Kahn, Founder of Crosstown

Crosstown relies primarily on public information, while recognizing that “so much of the data is publicly available but not publicly accessible.” In addition, Crosstown’s USC affiliation allows it to collaborate with university researchers on analysis of data that the public might otherwise never find. For example, USC researchers monitor air quality, and Crosstown is bringing that information to public notice. (Air quality might not vary that much by neighborhood in much of the country, but in Los Angeles, there are significant differences because of a variety of factors such as ocean breezes and freeway locations, Kahn said.)

Crosstown’s website features both interactive charts and news stories based on data. The site looks for opportunities to respond to news events with fresh analysis. For example, Southern California’s rainy winter recently inspired the researchers to look at whether wet weather was correlated with more traffic accidents. (It was.)

Kahn is looking to expand Crosstown in a number of ways – by growing its audience, by increasing the number of data sets used, and eventually by expanding to other cities.  “What we first have to do is prove that we can do this in a sustainable way in Los Angeles.”

Visitors to Crosstown's crime map (https://map.xtown.la) can find recent data for their Los Angeles neighborhood.

Kahn is teaming with USC students and university data scientists Mingxuan Yue and George Constantinou on Crosstown, which is funded by an Annenberg Foundation grant.

“Building an audience is a very laborious, high-touch process,” said Kahn, describing how he sent students to neighborhood council meetings to hand out printouts with Crosstown infographics customized for them. “They’ve actually offered to pay us. ‘Wait, can we buy this from you on a regular basis?’ So that’s like a huge proof point for us. Can we get people to pay for this?”

Crosstown joins a nationwide movement by governments, universities and other institutions to make big data more useful to citizens and the news media. One local government example is the Chicago Data Portal, which offers links to data on topics ranging from traffic accidents to flu shot locations to police misconduct investigations. Among the university-based projects is the Stanford Open Policing Project, which collects information on police stops in many cities and states and offers impressive presentations and downloads.

One key challenge in data presentation projects is maintenance. Many ambitious projects have been launched only to sunset because of a lack of resources. Kahn emphasized that Crosstown is an experimental effort and that its future will be determined by whether its results inspire further investment. But the USC project is positioning itself for sustainability by aiming to work only with recurring data sets.

The USC team faces a variety of challenges familiar to data scientists, such as local agencies that report similar statistics in different ways. But the potential is encouraging.

“We live in an age when all this big data has become so much more available,” Kahn said, “but it’s such a struggle to deliver it that last mile. And that’s what we really want to do.”

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of six books on history and photography.

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