How data journalist John Perry presses on

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I love my job. I’m not from Missouri, the show-me state. I’m an Okie, so Missouri adjacent, and all my life I’ve had that habit – obsession really: when someone tells me something is true, remaining skeptical until I can prove it, or disprove it, for myself. I also love playing with technology. So, working on the data journalism team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hits all my greatest obsessions and my greatest joys.

In 2008, when I and another reporter on the investigative team noticed unbelievable jumps in state math test scores after a few weeks of summer school, we dug into the testing data to try to understand how that happened. The result was an investigation that, over four years, proved systematic cheating on state tests in the Atlanta Public Schools district.

Sometimes the data we need to answer a question doesn’t exist, and we have to create it. When another Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative reporter noticed what he thought was an unusual number of medical board disciplinary cases involving inappropriate sexual behavior, my team wrote programs that downloaded disciplinary documents from medical board websites in 50 states and then identified cases involving sexual conduct. That created the first ever national database of sexual abuse cases brought against doctors and found that doctors in Georgia and nationwide rarely face serious consequences for their inappropriate behavior. The report was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

Much of data journalism is tedious work. When your story is based on a number that is a summary of thousands or millions of records in a database, you have to be sure there isn’t a systematic problem with the data that might give you a false result. Data is collected by humans, after all. That involves hours, days, sometimes months of meticulous data cleaning and testing. But the result can help sexual abuse victims find justice and schoolchildren get the help they need instead of being passed from grade to grade without learning.

I’ve been at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a little more than a decade now, and it’s been the most fun I’ve had in my 30-year journalism career. So thank you, subscribers, for making it possible for me to pursue my passions and, I hope, make life a little better for people in Atlanta and in Georgia.

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