Rob Barry

Rob Barry

Organisation: The Wall Street Journal (United States)

Publication Date: 04/10/2015



Best individual portfolio. The Wall Street Journal is proud to nominate Rob Barry, whose data analysis and traditional reporting underpinned an astonishing body of work from April, 2014, to April, 2015. He contributed to three ground-breaking public-service investigations, sparking changes in Wall Street regulatory practices, an investigation into Medicare practices and potential shifts in the way the FBI gathers data. Along the way, he also helped provide insight to our readers on baseball. The following samples show the breadth, scope, sophistication and scrupulous accuracy of his data-driven work, including an academic paper that he presented at a Computational Journalism conference that details his analysis on troubled brokers. In a broad investigation, Rob Barry teamed up with Journal reported Jean Eaglesham to reveal that Wall Street’s own national watchdog doesn’t make public all the regulatory red flags it has about brokers. The Journal dug up and analyzed the employment and disciplinary history of more than 550,000 of the nation’s stockbrokers. Reporters found a wide array of regulatory breakdowns. Reporters found more than 50,000 brokers had failed a key entrance exam – sometimes as many as a dozen times – and that those who repeatedly failed had worse disciplinary records. And the Journal identified 16 “hot spots” across the country where large numbers of troubled brokers congregate, often near elderly and wealthy investors – and showed how state securities regulators do little to target resources on these problem areas. The project relied extensively on FOIA. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the main entity responsible for overseeing stockbrokers, is a private organization and not subject to FOIA. While it makes public most of the data describing individual stockbrokers via an online tool called BrokerCheck, it has declined to release these records in bulk or allow its data to be scraped. To get around this, reporters turned to the 50 state securities regulators, which are government entities with access to data on the set of brokers registered to work in their jurisdiction. Reporters filed public records requests with all 50 states. In many cases, these regulators were unaware that they had access to the bulk data. Journal reporters created a step-by-step guide that illustrated why the information was public and how to access the records. The stories had immediate results. The Wall Street regulator, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, put in place a new rule requiring brokerage firms to conduct more thorough checks on new employees. The regulator began vetting the records of the more than 600,000 brokers currently in the industry, pledging to take enforcement action where appropriate; an effort, about 40% complete, that has so far resulted in about 1,000 brokers disclosing previously hidden red flags. Finra has also stepped up its policing of problem brokers. Rob also played a key role in “Medicare Unmasked,” the Journal’s data-driven series on how payments are made in the $600 billion Medicare system. In April, 2014, the U.S. made public Medicare billing data by doctors for the first time since 1979. The government acted because of successful litigation by Journal parent Dow Jones & Co. and amid persistent reporting on Medicare by Journal reporters. The Journal used the newly released data to highlight a toxic mixture of medicine and greed in the nation's health-care system, detailing numerous ways in which U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for nearly $60 billion in bogus Medicare payments each year. In the process, the Journal paved the way for other news organizations to dig into the federal system. Rob provided the data analysis for one of our blockbuster reveals, which had major impact. The article examined medical providers who collected more from Medicare for a single procedure than anyone else -- and by large margins. The analysis relied on the computation of a standardized “z-score,” which allowed the Journal to identify specific providers whose billings for specific procedures were many standard deviations away from the mean. Soon after, the Journal broke news of an FBI investigation into one of the providers it had identified as an outlier. Still further, Rob changed the national discussion on police shootings in the United States with his story and interactive graphic on the shoddy data on justifiable homicides. Rob teamed up with Coulter Jones and Nathanial Lash to show that the latest data from 105 of the country’s largest police agencies found more than 550 police killings between 2007 and 2012 were missing from records kept by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or in a few dozen cases, not attributed to the agency involved in the killing. The Journal’s tally showed at least 1,800 police killings in those departments, about 45% more than the FBI’s tally for justifiable homicides in those jurisdictions. The Journal’s reporting showed for the first time the extent of the failure of the nation’s largest police departments to report these critical events, though its analysis was certainly an undercount: There are more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. Here’s what the Journal did: We contacted all 110 of the largest police departments and asked for the number of people killed by police for those years. This is essentially the same information that the agencies submit in their crime-reporting statistics via the FBI Supplementary Homicide Report, which is part of the bureau’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Some jurisdictions provided the information upon request. A few already provided it on their website, but for reasons we explain in the story, their respective states did not forward that information to the FBI or it wasn’t properly accounted for in the FBI’s data. A number of departments said they would only provide the information in response to a formal Open Records (FOI) request under their respective state laws, which we then provided them. Of the 105 departments that provided statistics, five did not provide them for all the years we asked for (2007 through 2012). The process took about three months from the time we first requested the data to the time we published. We then went back to the justifiable homicide field in the Supplementary Homicide Report data, obtained from the FBI, and compared the Journal’s tally to that of the federal government’s. The Journal then built an interactive graphic that allowed the public to look up their own state or municipality and see how many police shootings those agencies recorded versus what the FBI had in its records. The public, including other news organizations, could also download the data set, which came from our aggregated numbers from the responding police agencies and the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report. The story on police killings got immediate response. Sen. Patrick Leahy pointed to the Journal’s story—entering it into the Congressional Record—in his effort to pass the Death in Custody Act of 2013. That law provides incentives for states to report deaths in custody (including many justifiable homicides that occur during the course of an arrest) to the U.S. Department of Justice. It also requires the FBI’s own killings to be included in the data. The law passed the Senate on Dec. 10, 2014 and was signed by the President on Dec. 18. Meanwhile, the FBI said it would review in 2015 its methodology for compiling the data, a process it expects to make public in June. Its board could then suggest a change. Moreover, at least two news organizations said they would use our data, which could be downloaded for free, to do their own stories about police killings in their community. Earlier in the year, Rob performed analysis that supported the idea that Wall Street activist investors were leaking their takeover plans to friends and allies before announcing them to the public. The analysis showed that the stock prices of hundreds of companies targeted by activists increased by an average of 3.2% above the market in the 10 trading days before activists announced their bids. Included here is a story he wrote with colleagues Susan Pulliam and Chris Dieterich illustrating how one such deal unfolded. In the ten days before activist investor Bill Ackerman of Pershing Square announced his stake in Botox maker Allergan, trading in the stock surged. The reporters found that even after stripping out Pershing’s purchases of the stock, the volume was 86% higher than its average over the previous year. The stock’s price rose by 22% during that same period. Rob even weighed in on America’s Pastime. He and colleague Tom McGinty used free data from the firm Retrosheet to log baseball games back to the 1940s to show why the American League has a bigger home-field advantage over the National League in interleague play. They then spelled out their analysis in a “How We Did It” column, which explained that they used two different modeling methods: a top-down regression analysis, and a ground-up method in which they tallied the specific impact of the Designated Hitter position in the games.

Technologies used for this project:

Rob relied extensively on the scripting languages Python, Ruby and PHP. For intense data processing, he at times utilized C# for its speed, which was helpful particularly in the pre-processing of some of the Medicare data. For analysis, he used R and Python. Throughout the year, he utilized mathematical techniques from several disciplines. For his baseball analysis, he used multivariate logistic regression. For the work on stockbrokers, Rob used a fairly broad set of statistical tools, including regression analysis, Monte Carlo random sampling and cluster analysis.
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