Chris Zubak-Skees, News Developer, The Center for Public Integrity

Chris Zubak-Skees, News Developer, The Center for Public Integrity

Organisation: The Center for Public Integrity (United States)

Publication Date: 04/11/2015



The Center for Public Integrity’s mission is to serve democracy, which the apps and graphics built by News Developer Chris Zubak-Skees do using interaction and visual design to throw open the doors to the datasets Center reporters use—and to invite citizens to understand the issues we cover. Throughout the year, Zubak-Skees works with our coverage teams to tell stories beyond the written word. In 2014-2015, highlights of his work to help our audiences connect with our reporting include: For the “Consider the Source: 2014 U.S. Election” project, Zubak-Skees produced the widely used “Who’s Buying the Senate?” and “State Ad Wars Tracker” web apps allowed journalists and the general public to see what groups and power players were behind more than 2.5 million TV ads that aired in U.S. Senate races, statewide ballot measures and state-level contests such as gubernatorial elections and state Supreme Court races. After the election, Zubak-Skees led the production of tools that helped show who had tried to be kingmakers in the races by giving the most money around the country and in each state. The “Who Tried to Buy the 2014 State Elections” and “Who Tried to Buy the 2014 Ballot Measures” web apps named the largest groups and top donors at play in states and elections around the country. As part of the Center’s broadband industry coverage, Zubak-Skees helped take readers behind the scenes of how a major telecom giant works to influence the FCC to approve mega-billion-dollar deals. To show “Where Comcast, Time Warner Cable and poverty overlap,” he overlaid Census Bureau income data by census tract to determine the reach of Internet programs targeted at the poor — a key argument Comcast is using in asking for approval of its pending purchase of Time Warner Cable. To illustrate a story on municipal broadband focusing on Tennessee, Zubak-Skees built an interactive map of the broadband footprints in the state and, working with a reporter, added price and speed data for the cities with municipal fiber. To make download speeds real to readers, tiny simulated download bars animate across the screen in the graphic, “Where is municipal broadband in Tennessee?” To visualize “How broadband providers seem to avoid competition,” Zubak-Skees made clear the reality that most Americans have a choice of only one or two telecommunications companies for fast service. He used National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) data to map broadband coverage in five U.S. cities. The results show how companies appear to divide up territory and avoid competition. Digging in to the Medicare Advantage health insurance plans to explain risk scores the industry uses for pricing calculations, Zubak-Skees created an interactive graphic, called “How risk codes work,” that allowed readers to manipulate a risk score by changing diagnoses for a fictional patient to raise or lower the simulated cost. The calculations were carefully reconstructed from code, data and formulas released piecemeal by CMS and originally intended for use by health plans. Months of research and over 1,200 lines of code are behind this interactive. For “How risk scores changed,” he created an animated graph of how risk scores changed over four years for thousands of plans, which readers could filter for just the plans in their county, with data points that provide more details. Another graphic that simplifies complex transactions for the reader, “Follow Koch’s money,” demonstrates a dizzying tactic used by one of Koch Industries Inc.’s subsidiaries to pass a $763 million loan between affiliates until the debt is canceled. Using these visualizations to communicate the complexities of across our coverage areas has improved our overall storytelling ability.
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