Master’s student Blom receives Kern Scholarship for interactive map about US agriculture

Ellen Glover • April 19, 2018

Media School master’s student Eric Blom was recently awarded the Kern Scholarship for Innovation in Journalism for his work in the data visualization of the American agriculture industry. The prize is reserved for graduate students who display innovative and pioneering reporting methods. He presented his work at last week’s graduate student research colloquium.

“My goal of the project was to see if I could visualize all of the agricultural activity in the US going back a good 100 years in one website,” Blom explained to the class. “There’s been a trend recently in journalism to use interactive visualizations online to tell all kinds of stories. I think it’s particularly useful for telling big stories about big subjects, so I wanted to tackle a big topic and see what I could do with these tools to visualize it.”

In the end, Blom designed a color-coded, interactive map of the United States in which individual counties are color-coded based on what agricultural commodity makes them the most money. Blom identifies the top eleven agricultural products in the US according to the USDA’s census of agriculture, which include cotton, soybeans, corn, hogs and chickens. The map includes an interactive bar that determines what year the map represents and there is a search bar for those who want to only see certain crops or animals. All of this is meant to put a $400 billion dollar industry into a digestible and interactive map.

“Agriculture is interesting to me, as a journalist, in that it’s a product of many factors — economics, culture, climate,” Blom said. “It also influences many parts of our society. We eat, it’s a big part of our economy, it fuels our cars.”

Despite the importance of this industry, Blom said the data visualization isn’t as advanced as he’d like it to be. In his research for this project, he analyzed several maps similar to his put out by the USDA and the NASS Census. While many of them were fine for collecting data, they didn’t do a great job of telling a story. They were often static and limiting to what information you could see at once. They also weren’t very pretty.

So, Blom took inspiration from data visualizations and graphics created by organizations like the Washington Post and the New York Times to generate a map that could be a tool for journalists and the stories they may want to tell.

“I used Python coding language and Python notebooks to analyze the data,” Blom explained. “The basic process was, you take all these years of data of every commodity, put a dataset for each county and in each year you find the most valuable commodity. And I produced one table at the end of this that has the county identified by a number and then the commodity associated with it.”

In the end, Blom said a lot of what he found through these maps was to be expected. But there were also some trends that he thinks would make interesting stories, like the expansion of corn farms to the northwest, the concentration and industrialization of the poultry business in the southeast and the links between commodities like soy beans, corn and hogs. It was also noted that this map could be useful in visualizing the possible effects of President Trump’s recent tariff proposals. What’s more is the map doesn’t have to be about agriculture at all. With some modifications to Blom’s code, it could serve as a visualizer for any trend in America, from gun violence to spending habits.

With this amount of flexibility and interactivity, Blom says he thinks data visualizations like his will play an increasingly influential role in journalism.

“I think interactive visualizations, if the viewer or reader is interested in the subject, is even more compelling than a photo sometimes,” Blom said. “Visualizations can tell big stories. It seems to give a more authoritative perspective if you have a big overview with concrete and sound data. That could give an objective overview that you wouldn’t be able to give in words.”