In the ongoing conversation about how we can make an impact with our work at the Center for Investigative Reporting, our engagement team has developed a motto of sorts: If we want to facilitate true change, our stories should make more than a splash – we need to create a tidal wave. Through persistent reporting, smart distribution and innovative collaborations, we can build momentum that inspires a meaningful and productive public dialogue about the issues we spotlight.

That’s exactly what we’ve done through our reporting on the Department of Veteran Affairs’ benefits backlog. Not only has CIR reporter Aaron Glantz done an incredible job of documenting the problem and how it’s affecting veterans from multiple eras, we’ve also recently launched an API and dashboard for our data on the VA’s massive stack of disability claims to make it as easy as possible for journalists, developers and citizens everywhere to see how the delays are impacting veterans in their areas. Three weeks after launching the API, we’re already seeing great results.

Leading the charge were reporters at KPBS and St. Louis Public Radio who crafted posts that embedded our interactive charts for the VA’s regional offices in San Diego and St. Louis, respectively, as a quick way to show how long veterans were waiting in their local markets. The La Grange Patch published a similar post looking at wait times in Illinois. These are all great examples of how to use our embeddable charts to localize the VA’s backlog data for your area. Want to do the same? Click the “embed this chart” button below the title of each graph to get the code.

Our colleagues at Michigan Public Radio – fellow members of the Public Insight Network, which we’ve been using to collect veterans’ insights on the claims process – went a step further, adding context on the backlog through quotes from Michigan lawmakers and a local veteran who said that the VA has lost his disability claim paperwork three times. 

In Maine, the Bangor Daily News incorporated our data into a new infographic that they created using Tableau, comparing wait times at the VA’s regional office in Togus with the national averages. Reporter Abigail Curtis spotlighted the problems that several local veterans – and their survivors – have experienced as a result of the delays and talked to legal advocates who help claimants file their forms.

Fellow PIN partners in Georgia at the Center for Collaborative Journalism are also teaming up with the Macon Telegraph and Georgia Public Radio, using a version of our callout to solicit insights and experiences from local veterans who have filed disability claims with the VA. So far, their PIN query has received more than 30 responses.

The New York Times also gave our interactive map and data dashboard a shout-out in an article looking at the mounting criticism facing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki over the backlog, citing “intensified media coverage” as a major force behind the calls for action.

And that’s just a sampling of what’s currently in the works. We’re talking with journalists and editors at news outlets across the country about crafting larger stories and visualizations around our data and reporting. Our partnership with the Public Insight Network is also helping us find veterans sources across the U.S. who we can connect with interested reporters in their area. Are you a veteran with experience filing a disability claim? Please take a minute to share your insight.

If you’d like to localize the disability claims backlog story for your area, want to create something new from our API or have other ideas on how we could collaborate, send me an email. Our team can help with any questions you may have on the data and potentially put you in touch with a local source. We’re trying to highlight at least one veteran’s story at each of the 58 regional offices on our map and would love to feature your story as well. Join the wave.

Cole Goins is the director of community engagement for Reveal, where he cultivates partnerships that blend in-depth journalism and creative public engagement. He has built and supported distribution networks, spearheaded arts-based initiatives such as the Off/Page Project, led social media and audience strategy, and facilitated statewide media collaborations. He was a senior fellow in the 2015 USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowships, mentoring five journalists on approaches to community engagement. Previously, Goins was the engagement editor at the Center for Public Integrity, where he led audience development initiatives and multimedia features for award-winning investigative projects. He earned a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he worked as music director for WXYC, the student-run radio station. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.