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Census maps that resonate: Q&A with Bob Rebach

KDMC Interactive Census Workshop alum Bob Rebach, assistant graphics editor for The Record and Herald News, recently struck gold with an interactive census map. Published on, the map illustrates lagging growth in Bergen and Passaic counties in northeastern New Jersey. Rebach's map led the site in page views it's first week, with almost double the traffic of the second most popular story.

Rebach attended our Interactive Census Workshop in Dec. 2010 and has made an impact by putting the training to use. He was kind enough to take time to answer our questions about his project and offer his insights.


census map

Q: So, what exactly is your census project? How did it come to be?

A: The project was the kickoff to our coverage of the 2010 census, how our area has changed since 2000 and the impact of that change. One of the key components was how the population change would effect our representation in Washington and in Trenton. New Jersey is slated to lose a representative in Congress as the state's population growth has not kept pace with the nation. The additional impact of the population change is that the population in The Record's circulation area has not kept pace with the state, which means our area will have less of a voice in state politics and in Washington.

Census data is always a big story for our paper and we have a CAR reporter, Dave Sheingold, who keeps an eye on data releases. We started planning for the release of the decennial census data in November, when we had confirmation that I would be attending the KDMC workshop. We refined those plans when I got back, as we were not sure if we were going to have the MAPublisher plugin for Illustrator by the time the data was released. The plan was to utilize an existing Flash base-map of towns in our circulation area and have Protovis* charts with Census data open in a popup window.

Editor's note: Protovis is a JavaScript library used to create data visualizations.

Example of detailed information available by municipality.

county detail

Q: The project led your site in page views for more than a week. Why do you think it was so successful?

A: The project has actually been the highest trafficked page on our site for the entire month of February. It has been in the top 10, in terms of page hits, every day since we posted it on Feb. 4. The total hits for February is 62,292. Over the same time period, the next highest page is 51,270 (a story about a woman police officer who was recovering from gunshot wounds following a chase and shootout with a suspect). The third place page is at 27,984 hits.

Interactivity resonates with readers for several reasons: First, it turns reading from passive to active. Secondly, there is a "game" aspect to it that is also engaging and third, I think it gives the reader a sense of control over the content.

But beyond the fact that the topic is appealing and that we have given all of our readers information specific to every town in our coverage area, we have no idea why this item continues to be so popular. We've looked at where the hits are coming from, in terms of related links, and there is no single source of referred hits from an outside website that is responsible for our traffic. So it is not as if Drudge or some other aggregator picked up our story and funneled a disproportionate amount of traffic to our site.

Q: How did it integrate with other Census coverage?

A: Since this was our first story related to the 2010 Census, everything we have done subsequently has been integrated with this project. Eventually there will be a dedicated page on our site with links to all our census coverage. Our second story, based on our sifting of the data, was on how the black population was the slowest growing/fastest declining racial group in our area. With this project we were ready with MAPublisher.

Q: What was the reaction in the newsroom?

A: The reaction in the newsroom has been mixed. The results, in terms of traffic, has generated a positive feeling about our connection with the topic, but also a feeling of concern as we try to explain and replicate the results.

Q: What did you learn that you would apply to future projects?

A: We knew the census data would not be embargoed, so that turned the story into a breaking news situation with some lead time to prepare. The challenge was to create a graphic format that would make it easy to pour in the data for our 97 municipalities. Since we were using Protovis for the charts, it made sense to have the data external to the chart coding. I spent a lot of time working on that part of the equation and it paid off in the end. It was a lot easier creating the small data files than it would have been to add the data to the existing coding.

Ideally, there would be just one data file that the individual charts would read a portion of. I will continue to work on that formatting so that I will be ready for a future project with similar demands.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Any final thoughts?

After working on two Census stories, one with Flash and Protovis and the other with Illustrator and MAPublisher, I would say that the project using Illustrator and MAPublisher came together a lot quicker and with a lot less coding. Heaven knows I love to code, but when it involves town-by-town data for our 97-town coverage area, the coding can get really cumbersome.