Wednesday, May 15, 2013

About this course

This class, Spring 2013, was the first time the University of Texas Journalism department has offered a course in data visualization, and I was lucky enough to teach it.

The topic is broad enough to cover a couple of semesters, but what I concentrated on during this first year was the introduction of concepts and free tools that any journalist could bring into their wheelhouse to produce better journalism.

The course Syllabus and Course Outline is available. The class should be offered again in the Spring, 2014.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Working as one, the San Antonio Spurs

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of five final projects the Spring 2013 Data Visualization class for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

By Roy Varney, Rachel Marino, Arlena Cordero

A common adage in the game of basketball is that a fist is stronger than five fingers. Yet, in professional basketball, audiences are often subjected to prolonged sequences of disorganized one-on-one with little semblance of team play. If those selfish plays and players are individual fingers, then the San Antonio Spurs are a fist.

The Spurs, over the last 16 years, have become the face of selflessness in the NBA, and, in the process, the most dominant franchise in all professional sports. Since 1997, when San Antonio drafted power forward Tim Duncan, the Spurs have won four championships and over 70 percent of their games. In a time when big t.v. market franchises like the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks struggled to find success, the Spurs remained a model of consistency.

San Antonio's winning ways began with the brains of the operation, Gregg Popovich. A former member of the United States Airforce, Popovich, has at times, come off as tight-lipped towards the media, but it has been his commitment and foresight that has driven the Spurs franchise to an unheard of period of excellence.

"Everyone in that organization survives at the pleasure of Gregg Popovich," said Dale Dye, head editor of Spurs-centric blog Pounding the Rock. "I'm a huge believer that organizations are successful from the top down."

Giving a head coach the autonomy to choose who works within an organization would often be considered a gamble. Seven NBA coaches have parted ways with their teams since November. Heavy turnover is the norm, not the exception. But Popovich is no ordinary coach: his ability to not only survive, but also adapt and excel in a rapidly changing game has set him apart.

In 2011, Popovich made a dramatic and surprising change to his coaching style. San Antonio began playing a form of run-and-gun, fast paced basketball that the Phoneix Suns had previously innovated.

"I would describe it as a lightning strike," Dye said. "Two years ago, out of nowhere, after spending over a decade with his hands stretched up to tell the team to slow down whenever they got moving too fast, in the preseason, after the sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns, Popovich is moving his arms like he's waving home a baserunner."

Indeed, San Antonio's pace, an advanced metric that counts the number of possessions a team plays in a game, has steadily risen from 90.7, or twentieth in the league in 2010, to 94.2, sixth in the league, in 2013. The Spurs have raised their offensive efficiency, another advanced metric that measures the number of points a team scores for every 100 possessions, from seventh in 2010 to first last year.

Story continues below visualization.
Higher offensive efficiency is better.
Lower defensive efficiency is better.
All data courtesy of

Popovich, for his part, doesn't concern himself with these statistics.

"I'll look it up on my computer as soon as I buy one," Popovich recently joked when asked an analytics-oriented question.

Popovich focuses on the number of wins, and how his system can be effectively utilized to maximize this number. Duncan is the heart of this system. His ability to create offense for himself and his teammates in a high percentage, low risk fashion is exactly what Popovich instructs.

"Ruthlessly efficient, and ruthlessly meticulous about the way the offense is run," Dye, who writes under the pen name J.R. Wilco, described of the Spurs' system. "It's preparedness beforehand in order to dictate the tenor of what happens on the floor."

Meanwhile, the Spurs have continued to breathe life into Duncan's game through French point guard Tony Parker and Argentinian shooting guard Manu Ginobili. Together these three players have earned the nickname of "The Big Three," a homage to a similarly dominant Boston Celtics trio from the 1980s.

San Antonio's affection for foreign born players is no happy accident, as Popovich and RC Buford, their General Manager, visit Europe each summer to evaluate players. More recently, San Antonio acquired their starting center, Brazilian born Tiago Splitter, after he won the 2010 Spanish league Most Valuable Player award.

“Every team in the NBA has the option to recruit international players, you can’t really call that an advantage or a disadvantage,” said freelance writer and contributor for the Examiner, Scott Barretto.
“Since the Spurs drafted Duncan there has been a lot of international players added to the team. Popovich took his chances multiple times with a cheaper price tag, and hit the jack pot twice, with Parker and Ginobili.”

The Spurs' system works in such a way that complimentary players can be plugged in and replaced cheaply. Thanks to San Antonio's advanced scouting and player development, these players, like starting shooting guard Danny Green, will continue to be replenished.

"We can plug in these high production, low salary guys who work around our Big Three, our skill players, and, as a result, what that will net us is a whole bunch of people who know exactly what to do with the ball under all circumstances," Dye said.

However, no road to glory is unbloodied. Health has been a major obstacle for San Antonio. Through the years, a myriad of injuries during playoff time has inhibited the Spurs. In an attempt to mitigate this, Popovich has begun to periodically sit his starting players out during the regular season.

“Popovich is a straight-forward kind of guy,” Barretto said. “He manages his team strategically and knows when to rest his players. This is why Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, despite their injuries, are able to dominate during regular season and the playoffs.”

This strategic management of minutes has been the source of controversy and drawn the ire of league officials. Popovich was fined $250,000 last November for holding all of his starters out from a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat. Despite this, Popovich sees no reason to change his mentality.

“What I do from my perspective is from a coaching perspective,” Popovich said in a public statement when asked about the fine. “And I think the league operates from a business perspective. And I think that's reflective in the action that they took.”

The mastery of a craft is a rare, near impossible task, but Popovich appears to have come as close as humanly possible. The Spurs, having swept the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, are one of the favorites to return to the NBA finals out the Western Conference. Each time San Antonio has reached the NBA Finals, they have won the championship. Can the team knock out a fifth?

"Assuming health, I give them their best shot in years," Dye said.

Affording Austin

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of five final projects the Spring 2013 Data Visualization class for the University of Texas School of Journalism

By Emily Donahue, Ning Sun and Mary Ellen Knewtson

Photo by David Ingram
Austin is booming. The population grew 37 percent in the decade ending in 2010. It ranks as one of the fastest growing cities in the country, regularly topping “Best of” lists for events such as SXSW, Austin City Limits Music Festival and F-1 racing. And, Austin fared better than most of the nation throughout the recession that started in 2008 – in February (the most recent statistics available) the unemployment rate was a mere 5.4 percent compared 7.7 percent for the nation as a whole.

If that’s not enough evidence to convince you, just take a look at the skyline. Big developments dot the landscape and construction cranes dot the horizon. And the real estate market is on fire. Austin’s median home price reached $220,000 in March 2013, the highest ever, according to data from the Austin Board of Realtors.

But all that glitters is not necessarily gold. That same real estate boom has priced many families out of the market. And it’s not just home prices. Rental prices have climbed steadily for the past 12 months.

Tableau project missing for some reason

Steven Tamayo is a Social Work major at the University of Texas at Austin. He rents a one-bedroom at The Axis in the West Campus neighborhood. It normally would have cost $1,200 a month. But his financial aid package qualified him for the SMART program – a developer incentive to incorporate affordable housing into mixed use housing units. He pays just $799.
Currently, there are no requirements that developers include affordable housing in their plans, but there are incentives. The City of Austin’s SMART Housing Policy provides fee waivers to developers who meet the policy’s standards, among them providing affordable housing options for low and moderate income families. “SMART” is an acronym for “Safe, Mixed-income, Accessible, Reasonably-priced, Transit-oriented.”

“Whenever I found out I was going to be able to pay rent that was significantly cheaper than what it was supposed to be I just took it and ran with it,” Tamayo said.

“Finding affordable housing stock has been a challenge for this city for a decade,” said Paul Hilgers the President of the Austin Board of Realtors. “It’s a huge issue for every urban community but now with the demand we have it’s really a huge issue for Austin.”

The city’s skyrocketing housing prices are simply a matter of supply and demand, Hilgers said. “There are challenges, that continue to and obstacles to affordability that when compounded with the market, make it very difficult for housing to be built.”

Austin currently has a limited supply of affordable housing available to lower income families and individuals. And it’s not clear whether the city will boost that any time soon. Last November, Austin voters did not approve a bond proposal that would have built new housing units within Austin’s city limits. Prop 15 was the only one of 18 ballot proposals that did not pass.

Affordable housing advocates are preparing a revised proposal for this November. Although the details aren’t yet finalized, it’s likely that a bond measure would include similar provisions to the last, which the City of Austin’s website says included money to fund development of affordable rental housing, preserve existing affordable housing and develop transitional housing for the homeless.

“Austin has gone through tremendous growth but part of that growth has meant there are fewer options for lower income families,” said Elliot McFadden, the manager of a pro-bond group called Keep Austin Affordable. “We see housing bonds as a critical part of creating more of that kind of housing and helping those folks stay in Austin.”

McFadden said a new affordable housing bond would have both home ownership and rental components, geared to serve families making half or less of Austin’s average income. For a family of four that would be about $39,000 per year, he said. The bond’s home ownership component would fund home repair programs for seniors, the disabled and fixed-income individuals. It also would go toward so-called “land banks”, which are plots of land purchased by groups such as Habitat for Humanity that will eventually be used to help low-income individuals purchase a home.

Photo by Jennifer Morrow
The Austin Board of Realtors is waiting to see the revised ballot language before it makes a decision to support a bond proposal this November, according to Board president Paul Hilgers.

In a city that has historically and politically opposed both density and sprawl, Hilgers said, developers are facing the complex problem of meeting marketplace demands while finding ways to meet the city’s need for affordable housing.

“[Voters] want to protect their neighborhood’s character,” Hilgers said. “In many cases that means they are fine with affordable housing as long as it’s not in their neighborhood.”

Because of these competing interests, the eventual solution will have to be one that is multifaceted, he said.

Keep Austin Affordable’s Elliott McFadden agrees. “Certainly housing bonds are not the only solution, but they are a good part of the solution,” he said.

Both also agree affordability is critical to the city’s long-term health. As Hilgers put it, “it impacts our transportation system, our air quality, our education system, our educational system, our healthcare system. Having good safe decent affordable housing is a critical component for any community’s sustainability.”

Data Sources: Austin Board of Realtors, City of Austin

Austin leads Texas in infant whooping cough cases

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of five final projects the Spring 2013 Data Visualization class for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

By Jean Jihyei Yoo, Gefei Liu, and Harrison Lindsey

Click to see interactive.
In 2012, the number of whooping cough (pertussis) cases among infants in Texas surged, with Travis County having the highest number of cases in the state.

Newborns cannot receive the pertussis vaccine until they are 2 months old, making them susceptible to the disease in their very critical first few weeks of life. Doctors encourage anyone who may to come in contact with an infant, to get vaccinated so they do not unknowingly pass the disease onto the baby. The disease is especially detrimental to infants since common symptoms such as cough or fever are extremely hard to detect. About half of the infants with pertussis are hospitalized and in extreme cases, the disease can lead them todeath.

“Their breathing becomes more labored and they’re susceptible to other bacterial pneumonias when they have pertussis, and the lungs get very stiff and there’s inadequate gas exchange, and ultimately they die of pneumonia,” Dr. Jeffery Kahn, MD Ph.D, said, Professor at the University of Texas Southwestern medical school and pediatric disease specialist.

Data from the Texas Department of Health Services shows that Austin’s Travis County had 79 infant pertussis cases last year, which was the highest number of cases among major counties in Texas. Also, Travis had the smallest number of infant population [2010 Census] but also the highest percentage of infants that contracted the disease.

Dallas County was the second highest with63 cases, Harris County in Houston third with 43, and Bexar County of San Antonio with 21 cases.

“I honestly think it’s because of Austin’s more liberal culture,” Dr. Julie Grimes, MD said. “People aren’t just against the whooping cough vaccine here; they’re against vaccinations in general. I think that’s why it’s such a problem in Austin compared to more conservative areas like Dallas and Houston.”

But the surge in pertussis cases in 2012 wasn’t unexpected. In 2009, Travis County had a large number of pertussis cases with a total of 104 cases. But that number decreased continually until another resurgence in 2012.

“The disease surges every three of four years,” Dr. Kahn said. “Last year we had a surge, and this year will have a little less amount of cases, but it will continue drop and then we expect another surge in 2015-16.”

One of the reasons for the three to four year surges is the lack of education the public has on the disease. Doctors hope to change that with a continuedeffort in educating parents about the vaccine.

“There’s a cycle because of the push for vaccinations that we doctors give as the disease begins to trend upward again,” Grimes said. “It will spike like it has been in 2012, then we really crack down on parents that come through our practice, and then in the next couple of years it will subside. The goal is that we have all doctors constantly educating parents of the disease and the importance of the vaccine.”

A recent study from the Journal of American Medical Association says that 98% of children who receive all five doses of the whooping cough vaccine before kindergarten were protected from the disease.

With pertussis surges lasting three to four years, vaccinations are key to the health of newborns. If Austin wants to improve their rate of cases relative to their population size, more education and efforts should be made. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Advocates say Texas abortion bill would impact low-income women

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of five final projects the Spring 2013 Data Visualization class for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

By Faith Daniel, Beth Cortez-Neavel and Ashley Meleen

A bill that would force abortion care facilities to be more up to surgical center standards could affect access to care for low-income women in Texas and endanger their safety, pro-choice champions say.

NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, a non-profit organization working toward making abortion care safer and more affordable, argues on their website that Senate Bill 537 is “unnecessary for abortion to take place in hospital-like settings… a prohibitively expensive requirement.”

SB 537 would make abortion services comparable to a surgical center’s care, ultimately resulting in a very expensive procedure and making abortion care more unreachable for low-income women, NARAL says.

The bill—authored by Republican Senators Bob Deuell (Greenville), Charles Schwertner (Georgetown) and Donna Campbell (New Braunfels)—passed through the Senate Health and Human Services Committee in March and is waiting to be heard on the Senate floor.

Currently, Texas has passed numerous bills since the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade that limit abortion care. Apart from the 2011 sonogram law that requires a physician to provide a sonogram before performing an abortion, there’s the 1976 “Hyde Amendment” that prohibits federal Medicaid funding to cover abortions, except when a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest or endangers the mother’s life; the state also passed the “Women’s Right to Know” law in 2011, which requires physicians to give women information about abortion medical risks, adoption and development stages of the fetus.

Organizations like NARAL are working toward legislation that will make abortion care safer and more affordable, especially for low-income women. NARAL’s Executive Director Heather Busby says their ultimate wishlist includes doing away with any legislation that “negatively impacts reproductive freedom in the state,” like mandatory pre-abortion counseling, facilities requirements that increase cost and reduce accessibility, unnecessary restrictions notification and consent laws for minors in need of abortions.

But Busby says NARAL’s focus this session is on keeping more restrictive laws, which inadvertently drive up costs to women seeking abortion services, from passing.

“Laws that restrict access to abortion or create additional obstacles create a burden on low-income women, Busby says. “SB 537 would cause the closure of all but five clinics in the entire state.”

One in three women have abortions by the age of 45, according to Planned Parenthood. The Guttmacher Institute, a national health and reproductive services research institute, reported in 2008 that 42 percent of women receiving abortions nationally were classified as low-income. Last year the institute released a study showing there has been a national growing hostility against access to abortion services since 2000.

A recent study on the effect of the 2011 sonogram law by the Population Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Ibis Reproductive Health found an extra trip to the clinic costs women an additional $141 in lost wages, childcare and travel costs in Texas, Busby says. The Texas sonogram law requires women to make two trips to the clinic — one for a sonogram 24 hours before the procedure and a separate trip for the actual abortion.

Busby says she’s also seen firsthand how barriers to abortion access affect low income women.

“It is often these women who seek abortion care in the second trimester due to lack of access to healthcare,” she says. “They typically start trying to access abortion care earlier in the pregnancy but by the time they're able to, they're later in their pregnancies.”

This session, there are other bills on the books that would limit women’s ability to access care at these later dates, which could also affect low-income women’s safety. House Bill 2364 and its companion Senate Bill 25 seek to ban abortions at 20 weeks, based on a hotly debated claim that a fetus can feel pain at that gestational age.

“Then there’s SB 25/HB 2364, the 20 week abortion ban,” Busby says. “This bill is introduced under the guise of ‘fetal pain,’ although reputable medical studies have shown time and again that a fetus does not feel pain until the third trimester. There are no exceptions for fetal anomaly, rape and incest or mental health, and only a narrow exception for the life and health of the woman. This bill would affect women in some of the most dire and heartbreaking situations.”

Pro-life organizations like Texas Right To Life, or TRTL, say abortion is not only morally wrong, but is also a risk to women’s health; the organization believes women should be given information before making a decision on aborting.

On their website, TRTL links abortion to breast cancer, stating, “To this date, 37 studies have been conducted worldwide on the abortion/breast cancer link, and over 75 percent of them have shown that abortion is a risk for breast cancer.”

Pro-choice organizations like NARAL fear women’s health, particularly low-income, will be negatively affected by restrictions, while right-to-lifers says abortion is already risky.

“Post-Abortion Syndrome (PAS) is a term used to describe a wide range of symptoms that are intimately related to, and expressions of, a previous abortion experience,” says TRTL. “With the growing awareness of Post-Abortion Syndrome in scholarly and clinical circles, women with PAS can expect to receive a more sensitive appreciation of the suffering that they endure.”

TRLT pushes adoption as an alternative to abortion and seek that disadvantaged women view it as such, “Adopted children may enjoy more socioeconomic advantages than children who remain with their unmarried birth mothers. Adoptive parents may tend to be better-educated and older with higher incomes.”

Ultimately, NARAL and TRLT have one goal in common — to provide more information for women to explore options and receive better health care.

“We would like to see funding to family planning fully restored with all providers included in the funding and in the Texas Women's Health Program,” Busby says. “And we would like to see greater support for comprehensive sexuality education that provides our youth with medically accurate, unbiased factual information.”

Texas budget makes education, healthcare and water top priorities

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of five final projects the Spring 2013 Data Visualization class for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

By Kelli Ainsworth, Ann Choi and Sarah Foster

LBB from Sarah Foster on Vimeo.

The proposed 2014-2015 Texas budget is nearing the final stages of approval, with only a few weeks left in the 83rd legislature. On April 22, the members of the conference committee that will be tasked with hammering out a compromise between the Senate and House versions of the budget bill were announced.  As in years past, 75 percent of both chambers’ budget is allocated to education and health and human services. Though the decision to earmark so much money to these two functional areas may seem a matter of routine at this point, this session’s budgetary decisions were particularly significant. After massive education cuts in 2011 lead to a school finance lawsuit, and with the question of state Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act, funding education and healthcare were both high priorities and sources of tremendous debate. Though water infrastructure gets far less money than the behemoths of education and health and human services, fallout from the drought has made water funding a serious legislative priority this session.

Both the House and Senate versions of the budget have proposed more money for education over the next two years, though the Senate version, which pumps an extra $1.5 billion into education offers schools slightly more. However, as the Center for Public Policy Priorities points out, schools lost more than $5 billion in the last legislative session. These cuts, estimates CPPP, resulted in the loss of 21,000 teachers and staff. Some districts were forced to eliminate sports and arts programs, while others had to curtail bus service. The CPPP and other education advocates worry that the increased funding for education won’t go far enough to reverse the losses suffered two years ago.

Texas Public Policy Foundation also agrees that efforts should be made toward restoring some of the money cut from education during the previous legislative session, but also feels education should learn to function more efficiently, so it will require less funding overall. TPPF and conservative lawmakers support increasing school-choice options, believing that a competitive educational marketplace will encourage schools to make the best use of the funds they receive in order to attract and keep students. However, private school vouchers won’t be an option in the near future, as the House voted down public funding for private education.

Education wasn’t alone in facing deep cuts in the 2011 legislative session. Family planning funding through the Department of State Health Services was cut by 2/3, leaving an estimated 170,000 women without access to family planning resources, says the CPPP. This session, budget would restore care to nearly all of those who lost access due to last session’s cuts through a combination of programs. In an April 25 open letter to the legislature, the CPPP wrote, “Making sure all Texans have access to the tools they need to plan the timing and size of their families is a critical piece of the puzzle in building equal economic opportunity for Texans who aspire to overcome poverty, join the middle class and prosper.” 

The debate on healthcare funding in Texas has also been shaped by the impending Medicaid expansion mandated under the Affordable Care Act. Legislators have been debating how exactly Texas should work to expand Medicaid. There are 6.1 million Texans without any form of insurance, the largest number in any state. While Democrats favor simply expanding Medicaid coverage and eligibility, Republicans have endorsed a federal block grant that would give the state more control in deciding who can get coverage, how much they can get and how it can be used. They feel the current regulations governing Medicaid perpetuate a broken system that doesn’t benefit anyone. In an April 1 press release, the TPPF wrote, “Bottom line is that the status quo doesn’t make sense for providers or patients.”

Though water doesn’t typically receive the level of funding or attention afforded to education and healthcare, it’s been a major talking point in budget discussions this legislative session. The Texas Comptroller’s office estimates that the state lost over $8 billion as a result of the drought and wildfires in 2011. In order to avoid a similar situation in the future, various proposals for improving water infrastructure have been raised. The House budget includes $170 million to address wildfire damage. House Bill 11, which never reached a vote due to procedural complications, would have allocated $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for water programs and services aimed at combating repercussions from future droughts. 

Once the final budget is agreed upon and signed off on by Governor Perry, agencies will be forced to make do with the money they’re allocated. Whether the increases in funding to education, healthcare and water will serve their intended purposes remains to be seen.