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The Secrets of the Drought: A readers guide

It can be difficult to figure out who or what should be held accountable during a drought. Mother Nature? Barometric pressure? Pobrecito El Niño?

Beyond the weather, though, there’s another pattern emerging in California’s historic drought: Vital information is being kept secret.

Here’s a list of what’s being hidden in these dry times:

1. Government agencies are withholding the names of wealthy residents who continue to use staggering amounts of water.

One household in Bel Air used nearly 12 million gallons in a year. That’s enough for 90 families – and a $90,000 water bill. But the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power won’t say who he or she is. So we’ve been left to wonder who this mysterious Wet Prince of Bel Air could be. A drought posse has even been rounded up in Los Angeles.

This guzzler isn’t alone. Reveal reporters Lance Williams and Katharine Mieszkowski have discovered that hundreds of California residents use more than 1 million gallons a year. Their names are being shielded by the government, too. This is despite evidence that naming and shaming works just ask former Oakland A’s slugger Mark McGwire and current A’s mastermind Billy Beane.

2. Other government agencies won’t say how much water their biggest residential customers use.

We know about those big water guzzlers only because water agencies in places like San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland coughed up a list of their top users without names attached.

Fourteen of the top 22 water agencies in the state wouldn’t turn over anything. Anaheim... Read More >

Senator, veterans defend Pentagon crackdown on University of Phoenix

Veterans groups and a key member of Congress, who have pressed for wider inquiries into for-profit schools, are defending the Defense Department’s decision to withhold new tuition assistance money from the University of Phoenix because of violations of military rules.

In a speech on the Senate floor today, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., referred to the findings of a Reveal investigation that found a number of violations, including using job-hunting workshops to boost enrollment and placing military insignias on special coins.

Because of the violations, the Pentagon informed the school on Oct. 7 that it would be barred from recruiting at military facilities and placed on probationary status in the military’s tuition assistance program, enrolling no new students.

Last week, a trio of other senators, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., urged the Pentagon to lift the restrictions, saying the violations were minor and did not merit the severity of the punishment.

Durbin disagreed.

“There is no question that the Department of Defense has a duty and a responsibility to take appropriate action against those who violate rules and regulations related to voluntary military education programs – and the suggestion otherwise is astonishing to me,” he said in his floor speech.

Yesterday, a letter signed by 33 organizations urged Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to do more to protect educational programs for military personnel and veterans.

“Failure to take swift and serious action against violations … harms service members, taxpayers, and the program itself, and sends the wrong message,” the letter said.

The groups called the Defense Department’s actions against the University of... Read More >

University of Phoenix responds to federal ban, but it’s secret so far

The Defense Department is reviewing a response from the University of Phoenix to the military’s decision to ban recruiters from military facilities and suspend the for-profit school from enrolling more military personnel under the tuition assistance program.

The Pentagon declined to release the university’s response to an Oct. 7 letter informing the school of its probationary status, an action taken in response to Reveals exposé of the college’s recruitment techniques.

“The Department has received the letter and is currently in the process of reviewing its content,” Dawn Bilodeau, the Defense Department’s chief of voluntary education, said today in an emailed statement.

As it weighs its decision and whether to make the ban permanent, the Pentagon finds itself under pressure from a group of Republican senators who this week came to the university’s defense.

Two of those senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, represent Arizona, where the university is headquartered. McCain leads the Armed Services Committee. They were joined by Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

In a letter Thursday addressed to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the senators said they were “concerned that the DoD’s decision is unfair, requires additional review, and may warrant reconsideration.”

The university’s stock has plummeted figuratively and literally. Enrollment has fallen by nearly 55,000 from the previous year, and school officials said to expect further enrollment declines. The stock price for the school’s parent company, Apollo Education Group Inc., also has plunged – hovering just above $7 a share today compared with a high... Read More >

Stock plummets at company behind for-profit University of Phoenix

Executives of the parent company of the University of Phoenix attempted to regain investor confidence this morning amid plummeting stock prices and ongoing scrutiny from state and federal officials investigating the for-profit school’s recruiting practices.

During a conference call this morning with investors to discuss the company’s latest earnings reports, Apollo’s chief executive officer, Greg Cappelli, acknowledged that the company is “obviously operating in a challenging environment.”

Cappelli was referring to investigations by the Federal Trade Commission and the California attorney general into the school’s marketing and recruiting practices. He also noted the Pentagon’s decision to place the for-profit

Earnings report from this morning

Stock after earnings report this morning

school on probation from participating in the military’s tuition assistance program.

Although he did not mention it during the phone conference, the military also banned the school from recruiting at military facilities.

“We’re cooperating fully. We’ve taken appropriate action to correct any area where there is even the slightest perception that we are not appropriately serving our students or complying with requirements,” he said.

Confidence in the company has taken severe hits in recent months. Apollo stock was trading at more than $95 a share in 2004, but on Monday, it closed at $10.60. It fell further this morning, losing about a fifth of the stock’s opening value following the company’s call with investors.

The University of Phoenix has come under fire by members of Congress and veterans groups after a Reveal investigation raised questions about the school’s recruiting tactics.

In its exposé, Reveal showed how the university paid the military for exclusive access to bases, held recruitment events disguised as job-hunting workshops, and improperly used military insignias... Read More >

Quakes near key Oklahoma oil depot draw regulator attention

Oklahoma’s earthquakes are threatening a strategic crude oil storage depot, and the state’s regulators are shutting down some disposal wells in response.

That’s the latest in a string of developments as Oklahoma tries to slow down an explosion of earthquakes that seismologists blame on the injection of wastewater from oil exploration.

Reveal reported in February that Oklahoma had three times as many earthquakes as California in 2014.

The earthquakes are not going quietly.

Latest quake count

As of Oct. 19, the state had experienced more than 650 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher, well ahead of the total for all of 2014, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.

The new threat

A magnitude 4.5 earthquake on Oct. 10 near Cushing, Oklahoma, was the largest in a series of quakes near the Cushing hub, a facility that was storing 54 million barrels of crude oil earlier in October, NPR State Impact’s Joe Wertz reported.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates oil and gas activity, is telling wastewater disposal operators in the area to cut back:

The commission has ordered companies with disposal wells located within three miles of the concentrated quake activity to shut down the wells. Companies with disposal wells located within a three to six-mile radius have been ordered to reduce disposal well volumes by 25 percent.
The commission is telling operators of 13 additional disposal wells – operating in a radius of six to 10 miles from the Cushing quake activity – to prepare for possible cutbacks.

The October earthquake was hardly the first warning sign near the Cushing depot. A peer-reviewed study published in September concluded that faults in... Read More >

Sacramento Bee: Time to stop secrecy for water guzzlers

Water agencies across the state won’t tell us who’s guzzling the most water, even when some people are using millions of gallons a year in the middle of the historic drought.

The Sacramento Bee says it’s time for that to stop. In an editorial titled “California’s water hogs need a little sunshine,” the newspaper last week called on legislators to end an exemption in the state’s public records law that allows water agencies to shield the names of its biggest residential users.

The editorial came in response to a Reveal investigation showing that at least 365 households in the state used at least 1 million gallons of water in a year. The largest known water guzzler used 11.8 million gallons – enough for 90 families.

As previous Reveal reporting showed, Palo Alto city officials advocated for creating the exemption in 1997 in order to protect the privacy of tech executives. The Bee says the law raises basic questions of fairness:

Privacy is an important right. But there should be no exemption to the Public Records Act because a person might be embarrassed. If attention shames extreme water wasters in curtailing use, the public would benefit. The alternative is that the rest of us get the message that we aren’t in this together, after all.

The city of Sacramento not only refused to release the names of its biggest water users, but it also wouldn’t provide our reporters with basic data unless we paid $557 for programming.

The Bee penned another editorial this week demanding that the city... Read More >

The toll of displacement, told through images

Sometimes, a single image says more than thousands of words. That was the case with the photo of a drowned Syrian toddler captured Sept. 2 by Turkish photojournalist Nilüfer Demir. Although she and her colleagues have been covering the illegal crossing crisis for 15 years, she knew immediately that this one shot, of a tiny body washed up on a beach, had the potential to eclipse all the others.

“Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was lying lifeless face down in the surf, in his red T-shirt and dark blue shorts folded to his waist,” she said later. “The only thing I could do was to make his outcry heard.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 9.38.43 AM

A Turkish police officer carries the body of a young Syrian refugee who drowned off the coast of Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula. Credit: Nilüfer Demir

That outcry jolted the world into full awareness that something needed to change.

A less-talked-about but similarly moving photo essay in The New York Times Magazine recently took viewers along on migrants’ journey. “Desperate Crossing” is a multimedia exploration of a boat traveling from Libya toward Sicily, weighed down by more than 700 Eritrean migrants. It included this surprising revelation about the rescue boat that saved them from drowning:

“It was almost certainly the smugglers themselves who placed the distress call about the overladen fishing boats, and they have increasingly taken to telling their victims that, rather than Italy, it is a rescue ship that they will reach in a short time.”

Today, Reveal pays homage to four photographers who have been capturing the plight of... Read More >

Billy Beane is ‘displeased and embarrassed’ by his water use

Oakland Athletics executive Billy Beane blames leaky pipes for his profligate water use during California’s drought.

In a statement issued through the baseball team Friday, Beane suggested he had been unaware that he was pumping 6,000 gallons of water per day at his home in Danville’s exclusive Blackhawk subdivision.

That’s more than 20 times what the average customer uses.

“Three irrigation leaks were recently discovered and corrected,” Beane wrote, according to the Associated Press.

“We were more than displeased and embarrassed by the usage.”

Beane was the district’s third-biggest customer in the two months since the East Bay Municipal Utility District enacted a new ordinance that imposes fines for using too much water. Beane faces an “excessive use penalty” of about $800.

The utility has released the names of 1,100 customers who were hit with fines for overuse during the past two months.

The district still refuses to identify its biggest users, including an unidentified customer who lives in the wealthy enclave of Diablo in Contra Costa County, near the Diablo Country Club.

Records obtained by Reveal show that this customer pumped 3.5 million gallons of water for the year ending April 1. That’s about 10,000 gallons per day for a year – far more than Beane, and tops in the district.

The utility refuses to name this customer, saying he’s entitled to his privacy because his mega-use did not break any rules.

Meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News reported that Beane’s neighborhood in Blackhawk, called Saddleback, has lots of other mega-users.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the... Read More >

TechRaking Paris: Launching and Sustaining Newsrooms Across Europe

TechRaking is not an event. TechRaking is people. TechRaking is work. TechRaking is hard.  Hard to make happen, hard to run, hard to follow up on. Yet we do, and we are motivated by a single idea: to make journalism better through smart solutions and smart connections. This year we have hosted eight TechRaking events around the world. None of them demonstrate the energy and commitment to innovation more than our final event in the series for 2015, held on September 16 and 17 at the NUMA tech space in Paris. An eclectic mix of journalism startups from across France and Europe came together to share their experiences launching and sustaining newsrooms in the face of incredible challenges. We learned about creative and important new approaches to community engagement, and dissected important stories these innovators were covering and the reason they were called to act. This pioneer spirit now propels the most ambitious project to ever emerge from TechRaking: Re-Creation.

Re-Creation is a network of technology and business accelerators for european journalism startups to be designed in partnership with existing incubators and technology centers in diverse parts of Europe. Re-Creation will be a network of people and projects working to define new ways of funding, producing and distributing journalism across the continent. The Center for Investigative Reporting will help recruit and guide partners through the creation of Europe’s first platform for journalism innovation, training and market growth.

Read about some of what happened at our Paris Techraking, as well as find resources... Read More >

Turn your data into sound using our new MIDITime library

I’ve been doing data visualization for a long time, but helping produce a radio show brings a new challenge: creating interesting sound from data.

For the past few months, I worked with producer Ike Sriskandarajah and reporter Joe Wertz at StateImpact Oklahoma on a radio story for Reveal about Oklahoma’s explosion of earthquakes. Oklahoma used to have only about one or two earthquakes a year that people could feel. Contrast that with today: The state has more like one or two a day. When you chart that data, it makes a good visualization, but Ike asked if we could do an audio version to get the data into the radio piece.

We were fortunate in this case that the dataset – Oklahoma earthquakes – lent itself well to the drama we needed for radio. The earthquakes in Oklahoma went from almost none, steadily increased, then jumped off the charts starting in 2014.

To create the audio of the earthquakes we used in the segment, I built a Python library called MIDITime, which I hope others will find useful. It’s released publicly on our GitHub page and via pip.

Welcome to the party

We certainly were not the first to try what’s known as data sonification.

A recent journo-nerd conference in Minneapolis, SRCCON, had a whole session at on data and audio with a great list of resources.

And the idea goes back at least as far as 1666, when scientist Robert Hooke tried to explain to super-diarist Samuel Pepys his idea of how to determine the frequency... Read More >

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