Across all of Al Shaw\’s work, there\’s one common thread: innovative visual journalism to hold the powerful to account. Whether it\’s building a physical flood model to help readers understand the flaws of the U.S. levee system, or using cutting-edge satellite imagery analysis to detect every gas well permit location in West Virginia — Al wields visual storytelling like a sword. In his work, it\’s not only a way to tell stories, it\’s a way to find facts and demand accountability.
What makes this project innovative?
Each of Al’s projects uses a different techniques to do investigative journalism, and to tell that story online. In the levees project, Al and the team working with him created their own river flood plume to model how levees work. They also commissioned studies to help clarify the scientific work studying levees and inform our journalism. In Powerless, Al created such detailed maps showing how extensive the rights of gas companies were — and how they could often build gas wells that extract gas across multiple properties. When we showed these maps to local residents living through the intrusions, even they were surprised. In his gas wells piece, Al allowed readers to put in a location and see how close a permitted, underground horizontal gas well is to their location. He also used aerial images and geolocation to extract images of every permitted gas well location in the state, which, for the first time, gives the public a look at how gas wells have literally changed the state's landscape.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
For the levees project, Al's work provided local officials and residents information that was otherwise out of reach. Communities had been awaiting a model from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that showed how overbuilt levees in Illinois raised flood levels upstream and across the river. The model was a public record, but its format was so complex that it needed to be plugged into a program built for hydraulic engineers. A professor at Southern Illinois University analyzed the model, and we published the results in our story as an animated map. We were the only media outlet to do this. The entire levees project also showed that the Army Corps fails to re-evaluate projects after they’re built, paving the way for aggravated flooding. In collaboration with the Alton Telegraph, we exposed a secretive lobbying effort to deregulate federal levees. We used the Corps’ own post-disaster report to bring accountability to its delayed decision to save Cairo, Ill. from a massive 2011 flood -- hesitating to save an impoverished, majority-black city amid lobbying from well-connected farmers who had planted crops in the floodway. Powerless and Gas Wells were part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network initiative. Al worked hand in hand with Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette Mail, combining the outstanding reporting of an accomplished and deeply sourced reporter with the efforts of a world class practitioner of data visualization and cartography. They were able to tell a complicated visual story to West Virginians and ultimately, to the rest of the U.S. We've heard from our partners that copies of Powerless were printed and given to the entire state legislature.
Source and methodology
For “Powerless”: Map Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, USDA National Agriculture Imagery Program, Planet Labs, Inc., Doddridge County Assessor, Wetzel County Assessor For “To See How Levees Increase Flooding, We Built Our Own”: USGS and St. Anthony Falls Laboratory at the University of Minnesota For “Every Permitted Natural Gas Well”: West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) via Google Earth Engine
This is Al's individual portfolio, but colleagues who worked with him included Ken Ward Jr. from the Charleston Gazette Mail and Mayeta Clark, Lisa Song, Katie Campbell, Ranjani Chakraborty, Lucas Waldron and Lena V. Groeger from ProPublica.