Tracking illegal hotels in New York

Being on WNYC’s Data News team means that sometimes I do my own data-driven stories, and sometimes I get to work with other reporters in the newsroom on their ideas that involve data. Which I love. I help them think about what kinds of data might help tell the story they want to tell, where they might be able to find it, and then help them analyze it once they get it.

My colleague Ilya Marritz got a list of inspections of illegal hotels. Those are often short-term rentals through sites like Air BnB. Ilya, developer Alan Palazzolo and I had some fun sorting through the data, and came up with a nice little story and set of graphics.

As Ilya said, it can get weird out there.

Here are excerpts from some of the more unusual reports obtained by WNYC:

“3 Unidentified Females Asians Stated They Arrived Yesterday And Are Leaving Later This Week. They Pay $12 Per Night And Called The Place The ‘Family Hotel.’”

“Tennant [sic]…In 5a She Has Lived There For 5 Years And Does Not Rent Out. She Stated That There Is An Ongoing Dispute With Her Neighbor In 4a Who Constantly Calls Police On Her. Unable To Determine Transient Use.”

“Upon Arrival 1 Male White Refused To Identify Self To Anyone. Also Denied Entry To Buildings And Fire Department To Conduct A Safety Inspection. Male White Video Taped Interview, Was Belligerent And Would Not Give Any Information To Show That Would Show That He Had Permission And Or Authority To Be On Premises.”

“Unidentified Woman Opened Door And After Saying She Did Not Live There Attempted To Slam Door On Identified Police Officer. Woman In Back Screamed To Her Dont Let Them In. Male Came And Id Self As Owner Of Multiple Apts And Said We Should Be Going After Real Criminals Not What They Are Doing.”

(As a side note, this was a great example of when a big document dump can be used both to assemble figures and as a great source of narrative detail.)

Me and my sister

Every once in a while, the station where I work, WNYC, offers everyone in the newsroom a chance to pitch stories on a particular theme. This summer, the theme was “first-timers.”

I wound up doing a story about my sister Rios, a transgender woman. It was lovely to spend a day talking to her about the first years of inhabiting the world as the gender you are.

Listen to it here.

Finding NYC’s speed cameras

Few things bug me more as a reporter than being told I can’t have data. Particularly data about things government entities are doing. So when I was told that the location of New York City’s speed cameras was secret, I thought, hm. There’s got to be a way to figure out where they are, especially since the cameras are big boxes mounted on poles on public streets.

I had spent a lot of time looking at parking ticket data on the city’s data portal, and got well-acquainted with the various violation codes. One of which is for speed camera tickets. And each of those tickets had an address. Yay!

Using that data, we looked at where they were and how much each had brought in in revenue.

The city is collecting a lot of ticket revenue. The most prolific camera was on the Shore Parkway in Coney Island, right off the Belt Parkway. It issued more than $2.75 million in tickets last year — 55,000 of them, at $50 a pop. That’s 100 times the tickets officers in that area’s 60th precinct wrote by hand.

The three top-ticketing cameras were all just off major roadways: the Long Island Expressway, the Belt Parkway and the Staten Island Expressway. All were in places where pedestrians don’t cross, because there’s nothing to cross to. The roads have fences on one side, blocking off the highways.

We also noticed, though, that where the cameras were, speeding went down.

If the goal is getting people to slow down, the cameras seem to be working. According to WNYC’s analysis, the number of speeding tickets issued by each camera fell steadily over time.

Crashes dropped, too. In areas where we located installed cameras, there were 13 percent fewer collisions from September through December last year, compared to the same period in 2013.


What a year of reporting on traffic death meant for us reporters

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I spent most of 2014 focusing on traffic deaths in New York City. We created a database of all the deaths, and did a huge amount of work cleaning data, reconciling figures from different sources, reporting on policy shifts, and tracking down family members whose loved ones had been killed.

That last part – talking to families – was hard for all of us. But it mattered. So many of the traffic deaths went unreported, or were a single-day blip. We wanted to communicate the loss on an individual level, and what it means for our city to lose more than 200 people a year.

My colleagues at WNYC and I, on Data News and the transportation team, profiled as many of those people as we could. We also wrote about how the reporting affected us. For me, it made me incredibly paranoid as a pedestrian and a cyclist. My kid wears a safety vest when he rides his scooter. I never look at my phone in the street. I never wear headphones when I bike. And I don’t take it for granted when my loved ones come home safe at the end of a day.

When traffic deaths go unreported

Reporters on the NYPD press list get an email every time someone is killed in a traffic crash. Or at least we’re supposed to. My colleague Kate Hinds and I noticed that there were more deaths being reported in monthly summary stats than there were emails – some deaths weren’t being mentioned to the press. Almost a quarter of all deaths were going unreported, we discovered.

One of those was a hit-and-run near 23rd street. We found out about it because we called the NYPD, and asked for any details they had about a fatality listed in that area. The death was in the city’s online data portal, but that was all we knew.

That call sent us chasing the story of a man the NYPD named as Douglas Magrullo. But as it turned out, that wasn’t really his name. He was Douglas Matrullo, a natty dresser who grew up in SoHo in the fifties, got into drugs, and at the time of his death, was trying to get onto the straight and narrow.

After our story in December 2014, we noticed a marked uptick in notifications about traffic deaths – even deaths where the person didn’t die at the scene, a common theme in the unreported fatalities.

After an hour of discussing his cousin’s death, Richard Matrullo shook his head. “I mean, maybe because of the type of life he led, they just thought he was a nobody,” Richard said of the police. “They brushed it under the rug, it’s the only thing I can assume. But it ain’t right.”

Exploring the ways grief lingers after a crash

In my work at WNYC, I’m tracking traffic deaths, creating a database of deaths and producing a lot of dataheavy stories trying to understand who is dying and why. I also, of course, am doing narrative radio stories, since it’s a radio station, and radio storytelling is amazing.

This story was one that I struggled with a bit. It’s an incredible privilege to have people share their experiences and emotions with you, and in this case, I was asking people to dredge up and share intense feelings of grief and loss. I spoke with the mother and sister of Asif Rahman, a young man from Jamaica, Queens who was killed by a truck on Queens Boulevard in 2008.

It’s a story about what happens to a family when a traffic death fades from the headlines, and about how the grief of that sudden loss can hold on. The story is here, or you can just listen.

New at NBC News: Poor Immigrants Get Free Legal Defense in New York City Program

Leroy Samuels walked into the Varick Street immigration court in lower Manhattan, his wrists handcuffed and attached to a chain around his waist. “My heart is beating,” Samuels’ older sister Anneisha said from a courtroom bench as her father beside her, his head in his hands to hide tears. Samuels, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, nodded at his family and lowered his eyes.

Three days earlier, the 24-year-old had been in a New Jersey detention center preparing to appear at his first hearing alone. Immigrants facing deportation, like Samuels, aren’t eligible for court-appointed attorneys. And like most immigrants in his position, he couldn’t afford one on his own.

“I found some lawyers online, but they asked for $4,000,” Anneisha said. I just hung up.”

Without legal defense, Samuels was sure he’d be deported to Jamaica, the country where he was born but has not been for nearly 15 years since his father brought him to the U.S.

But he did get legal defense, thanks to a pilot program providing public defenders to detained, indigent immigrants facing deportation at New York City’s Varick Street immigration court. And that program just got expanded to represent all similarly situated New Yorkers facing deportation, in New York and New Jersey courts. I wrote about it for NBC News, with my frequent partner in crime writing, Seth Freed Wessler.

New(ish) at Ms. Magazine: Why is child removal so black and white?

I wrote a piece for the summer issue of Ms. Magazine, about the child removal binary: when a child is taken from a parent’s home, the options are either reunification or termination of parental rights. The piece, with my homie Seth Freed Wessler, explores how we got into this either/or situation and some legal options for flexibility in that rigid system. Thanks to Carla Burks and Karyetta Higgins for sharing their stories with us, and the readers of Ms. It’s not online, unfortunately, but hit up your library or newsstand and check it out.

A Different Kind of Justice: Tracking Traffic Deaths

When I’m not working on stories about the courts, I work at WNYC Radio, covering transportation. Particularly traffic deaths, something that’s surprisingly hard to track. Incidentally, they’re also rarely prosecuted, but that’s another post.

I’ve been monitoring and hunting down the reported (and unreported) fatalities, and luckily, I have the great pleasure of working with the station’s stellar data news team. Together we built a tool to keep track of all the people killed by cars in New York City this year.

Here’s the story on the tracker launch, and the tracker itself is, well, right here.

Collateral Consequences, in The Lens

Whoops, I forgot to post a piece I wrote for the great New Orleans news site, The Lens. It’s about how convictions for minor crimes, including ones for which people receive no jail time, can have severe and life-long economic consequences.

A few years back, a young woman named Delisalynn took a walk to the corner store. She was with her sister, who lives in eastern New Orleans, and their route happened to take them past the house where Delisalynn’s ex-boyfriend lived. The young man was outside, with a new girlfriend. Delisalynn exchanged words with him, and things got heated. As she tells it, she and her sister continued on with their errand. When they got to the corner store, the new girlfriend was waiting, with the police.

She accused Delisalynn and her sister of slashing the tires on her ex’s car, something Delisalynn denies doing. She was arrested on the spot. At the precinct, she was told that the misdemeanor charge, criminal damage to property, carried a prison sentence of up to six months.

“I had a 3-year-old at the time, and I did not want to go to jail,” Delisalynn said in an interview. She said the prosecutor and public defender told her that if she pleaded guilty she’d avoid that six-month sentence, so she did.

“Me being young, I just pled guilty,” she said, even though she maintains she had not committed the crime. “All I knew was that I had a daughter, and I had a job. I could not do six months in jail.”

What she didn’t know, and what she said no one explained to her, was that the misdemeanor conviction would stick with her forever. The public defender assigned to her case didn’t mention that in the few minutes they spoke, Delisalynn said — and in any case, the conversation took place after she had accepted the plea deal. Delisalynn asked to be identified only by her first name, a sign of the stigma that can accompany a criminal record.

Read more at The Lens.