Houston Chronicle, RJI partner to keep chemical company data site available for journalists

A resource that helped The Houston Chronicle shed light on chemical disasters and facilities posing the greatest potential harm to the public, in the event of an emergency, got a new lease on life.

After facing an uncertain future after its original owner — the Center for Effective Government — was shut down, the Right to Know Network relaunches today with a more user-friendly, accessible site design.

The redesign happened because of a collaboration between The Houston Chronicle, the Reynolds Journalism Institute and Missouri School of Journalism.

About the Right to Know Network

The Right to Know Network is a free public resource containing data about chemical companies and the impact on the environment. The site consists of a collection of resources tracking toxic and flammable chemicals at companies, the largest being the risk management plan (RMP) database. Data Editor Matt Dempsey said the Environmental Protection Agency requires chemical companies to file an RMP every five years if they reach a certain threshold of chemical tonnage.

The RMP details any incidents that the company has had, how many chemicals the company has that meet that threshold, what the worst-case scenario is for an incident at that particular facility, what the vulnerability zones indicate of a worst-case scenario and what an organization has done to prevent a worst-case scenario. In addition, there is information about hazardous waste and toxins release inventory, he said.

This information is hard to find elsewhere unless obtained directly from the EPA, which can cost time and money, said Dempsey.

Resource at risk

In 2016, the Center for Effective Government, the site’s original owners, informed the Chronicle that it was going to be shut down.

The site was too valuable to The Houston Chronicle, because it had helped them report the series, which had been inspired after four workers lost their lives in a plant from exposure to deadly gases. The Chronicle decided to buy the site themselves.

In 2017, they were again reminded how valuable the resource was to them. While participating in a press conference for the local chemical company, Arkema, during Hurricane Harvey, Dempsey learned that the facility had lost control of its chemicals because of flooding and inadequate planning, and they were expecting an explosion and-or fire. He knew the name of the facility because of the series he and his co-worker had written and the facility was one of those that posed a threat to the community during an emergency.

They had gotten some of their background information for the series from the Right to Know Network. Having written this series and having access to this data allowed them to be more prepared with background information at hand for their latest news story, says Dempsey.

“We had more information that we would have had otherwise,” he says. “And so we could ask more detailed questions. We couldn’t get much help from Arkema. We were asking for their updated chemical inventory, and they weren’t providing it.

However, the site continued to face an uncertain future. It was an old site and needed to be updated, said Dempsey. Updating the website as they moved it to a new content management system was more than the outlet had time or money to handle.

“I knew from my perspective and experience that I wanted no business in trying to go dig through somebody’s decade-old code and try to figure out what did what,” says Dempsey. “I also knew that we didn’t have the time or resources. We knew we wouldn’t be able to just do it on our own. And there were too many other things going on, and this would be a big lift.”

Finding help from RJI and the School of Journalism

Conversations with Rob Weir, director of digital development at The Columbia Missourian led Dempsey to James Gordon, senior editor for the RJI Futures Lab. Gordon agreed to take on the backend development of the site.

“Our two main goals were to make the site easier to maintain and cheaper to host, and we’ve definitely met those goals,” says Gordon. “Now whenever the Chronicle gets a new snapshot of the RMP data, the rest of the update process is fully automated. Also, since the site is deployed on serverless architecture, the necessary computing costs are much lower.”

Gordon had the help of Thomas Oide, now a recent Missouri School of Journalism graduate, who majored in journalism with a minor in computer science.

“From day one, Thomas and I were working as equals,” says Gordon. “He spent countless hours on this project on top of his other degree requirements. We would not have been successful without him.”

Weir and assistant professor Elizabeth Stephens, who both teach a multimedia planning and design course section, assigned students from their class to help with the front-end development of the site – what people see when they come to the website.

Recent Journalism School graduate Morgan Keith who helped work on the site said the old site was wordy, plain and not that intuitive for journalists.

“When we created the website, we wanted people to be able to see it and use it on their own without having to second-guess or set time aside to figure out how to use the site,” she says. “Our search by location, for example, is very easy.”

What is next for the site and future dreams

The site launches with the latest version of the Risk Management Plan database. Dempsey said they plan to update some of the other data sets as well in the future.

It is also Dempsey’s dream to have the capability for other news outlets to add their stories about facilities and incidents directly to the Right to Know site, so journalists have access to that background information, as well as the EPA data.


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