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Backstory: Most Nerve-Wracking Data Project


Published December 25, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 30, 2019 at 11:53 a.m.


This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2019.

My job is to look for sets of data that tell interesting stories about Vermont. Earlier this year I found one in the state's Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living. After negotiations that spanned three months and nearly $2,000 in fees, I wrangled five and a half years' worth of complaints made against local assisted living and residential care homes.

I set up a spreadsheet to help make sense of thousands of pages of information. Much of the stuff was mind-numbingly boring — stats and dates that our reporting team dutifully recorded.

But we also found shocking revelations about what sometimes happens in the 133 eldercare homes overseen by the state. Residents had been injured by staff mistakes and even assaulted. A cook took vengeance on picky eaters by ruining their alternative sandwiches with a copious amount of mustard.

So I created a "Holy Shit!" column, instructing the team of Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio reporters and editors reviewing the complaints to note the most egregious incidents.

Once we had inputted everything, reporters Emily Corwin and Derek Brouwer were able to filter the data for recurring problems. They began conducting interviews and requesting additional records for a series of stories we came to call Worse for Care.

I quickly realized we had a trove of information about eldercare homes that consumers would want to see and search. So I began the tricky task of building a public version of the database.

I had already "scraped" the state's online inspection reports. They included coding for the severity of citations, a detail that turned out to be crucial: I used it to enable our Vermont Eldercare Navigator database to compare homes using methodology adapted from the federal government's nursing home scoring system. But to do that, we had to double back and do a few more weeks' worth of data entry to get the citation records into our database in the right format.

Our team set aside a day to double-check the data — meeting in a Seven Days conference room for a line-by-line review to ensure we had the right number of citations and the correct severity codes for each report.

We were almost done when disaster struck: The state, I realized, had failed to upload many inspection reports to its website. We were missing roughly one in five — and so was our database.

I put in a panicked request for those public records and pleaded with DAIL to get them to us quickly. We delayed the Worse for Care launch date a week and crossed our fingers.

DAIL's staff delivered, but then we had to read, upload and analyze the missing reports quickly, enlisting every available staffer to help.

The database went live on the same day as the first stories — putting stats, a comparison graphic and inspection reports for Vermont-licensed facilities at readers' fingertips.

It logged more than 15,000 page views in just a couple of weeks.

Holy shit!