(As part of a year-long series, GateHouseNewsroom.com will ask reporters how they came up with data-driven story ideas. Got a story or series you’re proud of? Send us an email at tschmitt@gatehousemedia.com)

When a 25-year-old South Carolina woman was killed by her family’s pit bull, the story instantly heightened awareness about animal bites throughout the region.

And while the Spartanburg Herald-Journal covered the story of Porsche Nicole Cartee’s death (officials said the dog “just snapped” and attacked the family), reporters used the opportunity to do more digging.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.26.41 PMReporter Daniel J. Gross remembered other high-profile incidents in the quaint city of about 38,000 citizens, and as part of a piece on animal bite trends in the Upstate of South Carolina, Gross received databases from the Department of Health and Environmental Control listing various cases of rabies and bite reports. Those sheets were broken down by year, county, and type of animal.

The result was this piece, “Spartanburg among counties with most dog bite cases,” in which Gross illustrated the wide range of animal bites even a small county has to endure.

It’s a perfect example of applying data journalism to a topic that hasn’t typically been considered ripe for it.

We asked Gross a few questions about how he pulled off his project, and he offered some tips for those interested in creating a similar piece.

GHN: Why did you start digging into this data?

DHG: We got word that a young woman was killed in a pit bull attack. It was the family pet that went after the mother, and the daughter jumped in to help and ended up getting mauled to death. I covered this and wrote about how relatives are grieving and that the dog had no prior report of violence. Not long after, there was another high-profile dog attack in our area. This got me thinking about how often this happens, how often the animals who attack have rabies and whether our area is equipped to handle such a caseload.

GHN: Once you realized you wanted this data, how did you get it?

DJG:  I began to get in touch with our office of environmental control, which overseas animal control. I asked to meet with the director. Meanwhile, I already submitted a FOIA request to DHEC to request numbers of animal bites over the years, number of rabies incidents over the years and which counties were higher than others and from which animal.

Obviously, my focus was on canines, but I thought while I’m at it, it may be worth seeing which counties had bite reports from cows, for example, or bat, or raccoon, etc. This was more for fodder. I also met with the environmental enforcement director and asked him for data as well — how many animal control officers are there, how many calls do they respond to per day, how have local dog nuance cases trended over the years.

I also requested to go on a ride-along with an animal control officer. This was mostly for color, but she was also able to provide great firsthand perspective. Not only that, but during our ride-along she actually followed-up on another recent animal bite case, so I was able to see that play out first hand, take pictures and video and speak to someone who was the victim of a recent pit bull bite.

Daniel J. Gross
Daniel J. Gross (via Twitter)

GHN: Now, once you had the data, what did you do with it?

DJG: Once I had collected all of the data, particularly from DHEC, I started combing through the spreadsheets and tallying up the most bites from each county so that I could rank the highest ones. I began to put my numbers into words for the story and figured out the best well to share the information that made it so it wasn’t too confusing, but still interesting and engaging. I was able to determine how certain counties ranked compared to others over the years and which animals were more problematic in certain areas in terms of bites.

I had to submit FOIA requests to DHEC for the initial information, which took a couple of weeks to get back. I made sure to ask them for the information in specific formats so that I could easily sort through the data. Making sure that the information they provide is user-friendly is important.

GHN: What was the most difficult step in this process?

DJG: Probably the time it took to sort through the many numbers I was able to obtain to decide what was most interesting and how I would filter it into an engaging story that told the reader something they didn’t already know.

The face time with local animal control folks was the easier part, since I was sort of “along for the ride” and there to be a sponge for observations and information. The data sorting was more of the grunt-work since I had to discern what was most important and how it all made since.

It wasn’t easy to put it all together, but since I know a lot of data was in front of me after requesting probably more than I really needed, I didn’t have any questions as to whether there were any holes and whether I would leave out certain angles.

GHN: If you were to give some guidance to someone else trying to do this project, what would it be?

DJG: My advice for similar projects would be to submit your FOIA requests often so that you give yourself enough time to do the rest of the reporting while you wait for your data to come back.

Don’t put off submitting the FOIA, because that’s what takes the wait time. I’d also suggest to speak to ask many people as possible with as many different backgrounds. Even when you have the data sometimes, you may misinterpret it.

Sometimes, there’s more to the numbers than meets the eye so by speaking with people about your findings certain aspects may become more clear to you and it will help you tell a better, more concise story.

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