On Tuesday Sept. 23, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report projecting the number of Ebola cases to surpass one million by January 2015 without intervention. And just this week, the first known case of Ebola was discovered in the US.
And King happened to be skilled in the tool of choice. Visualized data—or data represented in charts, tables or other visually enticing and easily understood formats. If you don’t know King or the team’s mission, it might seem strange that a former journalist without any formal medical training would be asked to create a tool to better understand the disease’s current and potential impact. But King was the perfect choice, because the tool he and the team designed, Ebolainliberia.org, is already proving to be a game changer in the fight against Ebola.
Perhaps the ability to be constantly engaged in several projects simultaneously is in a journalist’s blood — or maybe it’s just King— but since I met him just over two years ago, I’ve not yet seen him stop to come up for air. Every time I speak with him, he’s working on a new project—like his Knight Foundation grant-funded app FilmSync—or taken a new leadership role, like earlier this year when he became an elder at his church. King is also deeply committed and immersed in his day job at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications—teaching the next generation of journalists to use new and emerging technologies to tell stories in innovative ways. And he does it all while raising two energetic boys under five with his wife of 10 years.
So, I wasn’t all that surprised in early September when my friend Amy King (Steven’s wife), told me her husband had been pulling all-nighters for over a week to finish a very important project. But my eyebrows rose a bit when I found out the topic of King’s new project was Ebola. Soon after, I saw the finished Ebolainliberia.org and I called King to chat about the site, why he got involved, and what he and the team hopes it will become.
At the epicenter of new media
King is among the new wave of journalists using non-traditional techniques like coding, apps and data visualization to relay information to consumers. King came to the Triangle from the Washington Post, where he led a team to eight wins at the regional Emmy awards in 2011 while he served as editor and director of video. Now, as the head of the UNC journalism school’s newly redesigned Interactive Media program, King is exposing this new form of journalism to his students through classes like “Multimedia Programming and Production.”
Harper, an associate professor and director of the Newhouse Center, was asked in August to help in the fight against Ebola by former student Thomas Karyah, who works at the Liberian Ministry of Information. When I caught Harper on his coffee break between class and assisting a student earlier this week, I asked, why King? His answer was pretty simple—he’d known King for years. He was smart, a “good dude,” and he could be trusted. Harper said, “In the rolodex of your mind, you think, ‘who can I call? Who can I trust? Who will be good to work with?’ King was someone I knew I could call on, and he answered the call.”
The case for EbolainLiberia.org
King was driving to Charlotte with his press-pass in hand to photograph the pre-season matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Charlotte Panthers when he got the call from Harper asking for help in building EbolainLiberia.org. He immediately said yes, and when I asked him why he decided to volunteer for the project he said, “A friendly colleague asked if I could help, and I’ve been blessed with skills and abilities in this area so I was happy to give my time to help others.”
While both Harper and King are Western Kentucky University (WKU) alums, they met while working together at MSNBC.com and on WKU’s Mountain Workshops, a set of annual workshops focused on documentary-style visual journalism. Though those projects had similarly intense timelines with large amounts of content, they were not as important or as data-driven as this specific project.
To date, the government’s efforts to control the disease’s outbreak and spread had been futile, in part because the data on where and how many people were affected was scattered, dated and hard to decipher. It was also being distributed via PDF files similar to this CDC report. Harper and King knew they could create a tool that would help the Liberian government, “better keep track of (the Ebola) cases,” King said, by visualizing what has happening on the ground in Liberia as accurately as possible. The site could serve both workers on the ground and anyone who wanted more information about how the disease is spreading and affecting Liberia. But the deadline was intense—as King said, “the longer we took, sadly, the more people would be affected and possibly die.”
Creating the Tool
Using rudimentary visualizations as a brainstorming exercise, the team explored different solutions and identified how the raw data should be visualized to best assist the on-the-ground teams. Now, the Liberian Ministry of Information gathers and sends the data to the team via spreadsheets. The numbers in the spreadsheets are then converted into the charts, maps and graphs displayed on the site.
With lives on the line, King and Harper took an approach similar to the “lean startup” model in building the site. They pushed to create a minimally viable product (MVP) that would evolve as they received more data and information. They had some battles with people on the ground who wanted to push back the site’s launch so it could display the “the Cadillac of data,” but King and the state-side team pushed for publishing a functioning site that would display the currently available data, then update and improve it as needed. In the end, the team created an MVP in two weeks. In a tired voice, King said, “a lot of code was written in that time.”
At the end of our conversation, Harper said, he was “thankful there are people like Steven, Thomas, Brian and the rest of the team to help build the site, because together we were able to achieve a goal that couldn’t have been done alone…that’s really good stuff.”
At which point, I couldn’t help but break the journalist’s code and insert myself into the situation, “I’m thankful for y’all too.”