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As an undergrad at DePaul University, Ben Welsh had a work-study job answering phones at the school's College of Communication. He was bored. But because he was charged with posting new internship opportunities for the department, he was the first student to learn that a pair of veteran TV reporters was seeking an assistant. “That sounded much cooler than answering the phones,” he recalls. He applied, and the rest was history — the self-described “aimless” student found himself hooked on journalism.
Unlike many an undergrad, Welsh wasn't lured by the glamour of television, nor did he find himself longing to tell dramatic stories of love and loss. The reporters he worked with, Carol Marin and Don Moseley, were into public records. Soon Welsh was, too.
The work made good use of his love of computers. As a kid in rural Iowa, Welsh loved noodling around online; in class, he'd learned HTML and Excel. So when Marin and Moseley got a giant stack of records, Welsh would turn it into a spreadsheet, transforming a data dump into the beginnings of a story.
In an industry rife with English majors and wannabe Hemingways with no aptitude for numbers, that made him a hot commodity. After getting his master's degree from the Missouri School of Journalism, where his work focused on computer-assisted reporting, Welsh quickly landed a job with the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Public Integrity, “a nonprofit news organization before that was cool,” he says. After that, he promptly landed a job working for the L.A. Times' data desk — a huge coup for a guy still in his mid-20s.
For the last five years, Welsh, 31, has worked closely with the desk's team of reporters, helping to translate their shoe-leather reporting into something that works on a website. The interactive map he created last year showing the Los Angeles Fire Department's response times had the whole city talking — and residents looking up their addresses to determine how they personally were affected. It also did something LAFD itself had been unable to do: pinpoint flaws in the system and determine causes for deadly delays.
Before that story, Welsh's biggest triumph was the newspaper's “Mapping L.A.” project, which somehow managed to turn a sprawling city into a coherent map searchable by neighborhood down to the street address — something that had never been done, or at least not well. It has generated millions of pageviews for the Times.
And it was drawn, in part, through new-media crowdsourcing. Trying to determine precisely where one neighborhood began and another ended was, suffice it to say, a challenge. “We knew because there was no right or wrong answer, anything we put out there would be debated,” Welsh says. “So we released the first version and basically said, 'World, tell us what's right or wrong about this.' ” Given the chance to draw their own online maps, readers seized the opportunity — and Welsh and his colleagues used that feedback to create “Mapping L.A.” 2.0. They later modified the map to create a third version, and are contemplating a fourth.
The power of the hive mind is one reason Welsh embraces social media in all its forms. He loves Twitter and credits GitHub, the social network for programmers, for helping him through many a project. “I wake up in the morning, and someone from Ukraine has fixed a bug from my coding,” he marvels.