Data journalism students use traffic patterns to provide local insight on COVID-19

Monday, June 8, 2020 - 8:30am

Data journalism students at the UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications (CoJMC) completed an analysis of individual traffic station data to provide local insight about the impact COVID-19 is having on Nebraska’s roadways. The state takes the daily count of cars, then averages them together to create a monthly count. When the state released March figures, it gave the first insights into local traffic levels post COVID-19 shutdowns.


Counties included in the Nebraska News Service analysis are Adams, Cass, Cedar, Chase, Cherry, Cuming, Custer, Dakota, Dawes, Dawson, Deuel, Dodge, Fillmore, Furnas, Gage, Hall, Hamilton, Howard, Lancaster, Lincoln, Madison, Nuckolls, Phelps, Pierce, Sarpy, Scotts Bluff, Seward and York. Local stories are available to publish for each county listed.


Senior broadcasting and journalism double major Natalie Saenz is one of the students on the project. Her role was to call businesses located close to major Nebraska highways and ask about any changes in the traffic on the highways or the surrounding towns since COVID-19. She also used data gathered from the Nebraska Department of Transportation on traffic numbers to support the story.


“The ultimate goal for this project was to put together a story about how COVID-19 has affected traffic flows on Nebraska highways,” Saenz said. “We all worked together to interview businesses by highways and compile the data.”


To Saenz, data journalism is a newer concept, but this project helped her see the actual impact data can make. She also believes numbers are just as important as words and thinks  data journalism is something that should be utilized more in Nebraska.


“The ability to analyze data and turn it into a narrative is one of the most sought-after skills in journalism, but most of the examples are big city news organizations doing national scale analyses,” CoJMC data journalism professor Matt Waite said. “Our students go through one of the most challenging programs in the country, and a fun problem to work on is how you use the same skills on a story out of Pickrell or St. Paul as you would on a story out of Washington or New York.”


Local news has never been more important and CoJMC is proud to be delivering sophisticated data stories to news organizations across the state. Throughout the semester, students learned how to obtain data, clean it up and combine it with other data from other sources to reveal new knowledge.


After campus was closed because of coronavirus, students worked on charting the spread of the virus around the state, analyzing unemployment numbers from the federal government and mapping disparities in hospital resources between rural and urban areas. All of these skills came together to analyze traffic across the state as COVID-19 restrictions went into place.


Quote from Jill Martin, professor of practice and Nebraska News Service coordinator:


"It is a privilege to continue our great partnership with Nebraska newspapers and media outlets across the state. Our students continue to receive impactful experiential learning opportunities like the data journalism project because of the statewide support," Martin said. "With every interview, story and photo, our goal continues to be serving the University's land-grant mission."


Data journalism students use traffic patterns to provide local insight on COVID-19
Data journalism students use traffic patterns to provide local insight on COVID-19