Excel spreadsheet data
Credit: Image by Arbron on Flickr. Some rights reserved
Non-profit news organisation VT Digger, based in the United States, is building an open-source WordPress plug-in that can automatically link news stories to relevant information collected in data sets.

The tool, called Catamount, is being developed with a $35,000 (£22,900) grant from Knight Foundation Prototype Fund, and aims to give news organisations a better way of linking existing data to their daily news coverage.

Rather than hyperlinking a person's name in a story and sending readers to a different website, publishers can use the open-source plug-in to build a small window that pops up when readers hover over a selected section of the text.

"We have this great data set, but if people don't know it exists, they're not going to be racing to it every single day.

"The news cycle, however, provides a hook into data," Diane Zeigler, publisher at VT Digger, told Journalism.co.uk.

If a person is mentioned in a news story and they are also a donor, candidate or representative of an organisation involved in campaign finance, for example, an editor would be able to check the two names coincide, and give Catamount permission to link the individual to all relevant information that exists in the database.

A brief overview of this information will then be available in a pop-up box, which readers can click in order to access the full data in a separate browser window or tab.

"It's about being able to take large data sets and make them relevant to a daily news story, so thinking about 'why does it matter that this data has been collected for years and years'?

"In theory, it might just sit there if people don't have a reason to draw a connection," said Zeigler.

While Catamount only works with WordPress, the code will be made available for publishers to customise and integrate with their own content management systems.

catamount
An initial way of displaying the Catamount plug-in in news stories. Image by VT Digger

The idea of the plug-in came about after the team at VT Digger began working on a project called the Campaign Finance Database two years ago, at a time when the state of Vermont was one of roughly eleven states that did not have an "aggregable, searchable database of donors for campaign finance" through its Secretary of State office.

Zeigler said the lack of such a database meant VT Digger editors and reporters had to download hundreds of PDF documents and sit down with a calculator to "connect the dots between individual donors and campaign contributors".

The citizens of Vermont can now access an online system launched by the Secretary of State's office, which provides data that can be downloaded in a CSV format.

But this database only contains data from 2015 onwards and doesn't tag donors with a unique identification number. This means a reader wanting to find out who a specific individual has donated to since 2009, for example, would still have to manually sift through different reports and use a calculator to find out the amount.

However, the VT Digger database compiles both information from the Secretary of State office and websites such as Follow the Money, which gives people a more comprehensive overview of a person's donation history and the businesses they've been affiliated with over time.

"We have daily stories in Vermont about lobbyists, candidates, people holding public office, that would be interesting for readers to be able to go 'oh, how can I know more about this person?'", Zeigler said.

"But this tool won't be just around campaign finance, what we intend to build is an universal hook between structured and unstructured data."

Zeigler explained that structured data refers to the databases that newsrooms are currently building, using both their own data and data publicly available, while unstructured data is the collection of news stories published on a daily basis.

"I don't see a lot of news organisations doing this and even though the capacity is there, they're not linking data sets to the news hook on a regular basis because it's just an extra layer of work.

"So what we're hoping to do is to streamline this process and make it easier for editors and ultimately, readers."

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