This is re-posted from the News Apps Blog.
Last week, we launched a new application for the RedEye – the Chicago homicide tracker. The web site makes it simple and interesting to browse homicide crime data for the city. RedEye reporter Tracy Swartz has been compiling the homicides since Jan. 1, 2009 and writes a weekly analysis. She wanted to give readers a better way to browse and understand the data and we wanted to help but never had enough time to give the project the attention it deserved.
The homicide tracker might look familiar if you’ve ever seen the L.A. Times homicide project. That’s because it’s the same code. LA Times hacker team of Ben Welsh and Ken Schwencke generously let us use their code (caveat: we all get our paychecks from the same place – Tribune Co.). It took four days of re-factoring, reorganizing, writing new data loaders and a new skin to make the L.A. Times code work for the RedEye.
This kind of project plays to the strength of the small newsroom dev team. We started with a small-medium application that was built to solve a specific problem, but not to be reusable. We worked with the reporters to figure out what about the L.A. Times app we should keep, what we should scrap and what we should change. We ignored the urge to refactor and leave as much of the original code as possible, tweaking only what was necessary. With the help of the author of the original, we were able to quickly make our changes and launch.
Free and open technologies are key to our small teams working quickly. Pulling content and data from RSS and Google spreadsheets allowed us to skip building a content management system for the homicide tracker. Using a sophisticated, modular web framework helps to make us efficient.
The moral of the story is that for news apps, small teams sharing code, insight and ideas – “small pieces, loosely joined” – is quite effective.