by Yu Vongkiatkajorn
Sarah Alvarez launched Outlier Media in 2017 to serve the needs of low-income news consumers in Detroit. Using SMS and Facebook messenger, Detroit residents can input any address in the city and receive free rental information about the home, including its most recent inspection data, any back taxes owed, and the name of the owner. The project has already provided about 25,000 Detroiters with valuable, stripped-down housing information that’s currently not easily accessible to consumers.
Project Goals: One of Outlier Media’s major goals is to close information gaps for low-income news consumers. It aims to be “more inclusive of those usually devalued by news media and more responsive to the community we aim to inform,” according to its website. By providing housing data, Alvarez hopes to put consumers on a more equal playing field with landlords, who traditionally hold all the cards in negotiations with existing or prospective tenants.
Tools & Technology: Outlier Media uses a customized GroundSource platform to exchange text and Facebook messages with participants. Alvarez also built her own database of housing information using public data, purchased tax data, and information released through FOIA requests. This took several months to complete.
Impact: Alvarez has texted about 25,000 Detroiters so far using a list of cell phone numbers purchased from a company that sells this data. According to Outlier Media’s audience feedback survey, 40 percent of respondents said the service was “really helpful,” 27 percent said the service was “kind of helpful,” 19 percent asked for a follow up, and 14 percent said it was not helpful. Alvarez’s interactions with Outlier users has also contributed to public-interest news stories, providing insight into broader issues such as Detroit’s housing inspection process and the misleading promises developers have made to renters. Alvarez also notes that the city of Detroit recently toughened its policies towards landlords, now requiring rental registration information to be made public—a move that she and other journalists have been pushing for. Additionally, Alvarez pitched a story to Michigan Radio about tax foreclosures and water shut-offs. The resulting reporting led to policy changes that would help bring back water for residents.
Organization Background: Outlier Media serves Detroit, Michigan, where approximately 80 percent of the population is African-American, nearly 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line (more than double the poverty rate of Michigan as a whole), and 80 percent of housing was built before 1960, meaning that units require a lot of upkeep and repairs. Outlier currently operates as a nonprofit, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Investigative Reporters & Editors serves as the project’s fiscal sponsor. Though Outlier is entirely grant-funded for now, Alvarez hopes that Outlier will eventually evolve into a user-supported model, with users paying for each report they request. Ideally, this money would support the service and the investigative journalism it produces. Currently, Alvarez reports stories and publishes them in different outlets as a freelancer.
Project Resources: Outlier Media launched with an $80,000 grant, most of which has been spent on technology and development. Alvarez commissioned her own customized platform from GroundSource, which cost 20 percent of her grant. She also pays a monthly subscription fee for the service. Alvarez has spent about $2,000 to purchase lists of phone numbers, and no more than $500 on tax data. She pays herself a small salary.
Here’s How it Happened
The project began in 2015 when Alvarez was a public radio reporter in Michigan. Alvarez wanted to start a project that would close information gaps for low-income news consumers but wasn’t satisfied with what she was learning in her job.
In order to make progress, she applied for a John S. Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford in 2016 and was accepted into the program. She spent her fellowship learning data journalism and designing the project. She also spent a significant amount of time wrangling data from various Detroit agencies. Outlier launched in September 2016 and began beta-testing in January 2017.
Here’s What Worked
1. Using data to determine areas of reporting
Alvarez spent much of her JSK fellowship at Stanford developing a methodology to determine what reporting areas she should focus on. She decided to focus on housing after researching complaint data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and United Way. Housing proved to be one of the top concerns of low-income Detroiters and an area in which there were clear information gaps. She also narrowed her focus to rental markets because it was an area where information could make a difference and empower consumers.
2. Correlating valuable information with monetary value
Alvarez says there’s not a lot of current scholarship on what makes information valuable to people and how to measure that value, so she tries to keep her information as closely tied to a dollar amount as she can. “I want to know that at least I’m saving someone money,” she says.
3. Having a very tight feedback loop
Outlier asks every user whether or not they found the information valuable and gives them a chance to ask for a follow-up. Alvarez says these are things she would never change about the project. “I don’t think it’s enough to say, ‘I put this report out into the world and I hope it met people’s needs,’” she explains. “I want to figure out exactly what it is people want. It also alerts me to other bigger issues I didn’t know about.”
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Outlier still needs better lists of phone numbers and better metrics for message delivery
Unlike WBEZ’s Curious City, which has its own full-time staff, MI Curious is managed by various editors across the newsroom. And when those editors get busy with other work, MI Curious can get lost in the shuffle. “I’d love to be doing it more, but everybody here has a lot of other tasks to tackle,” Brush said. “It can be a challenge to keep the consistency going.”
2. Outlier would love to try a focus group approach to see if outcomes are different
Currently Alvarez assesses whether her information is valuable through a quick feedback survey at the end of every exchange, but she says she’d like to experiment with a focus group to get better feedback on the service. This focus group would include people who have specifically expressed an interest in housing data, and it would help Alvarez understand if focus group users have different needs or feedback on the data.
3. The project needs more capacity:
Alvarez runs the project on her own, but hopes to eventually hire people so she can do more experiments and better assess the project’s outcomes. “I know whether or not what I’m doing is working, but I don’t know if what I’m doing is a best practice,” she says.
Here’s What Else You Should Know:
- Embracing data – Alvarez says journalists could be doing more to inform their work with data, especially in cities with a lot of publicly accessible data. “It’s a super fascinating way to work,” says Alvarez, “and it takes out a lot of your own bias.”
- Next steps – Alvarez is now working on a specialized project aimed at people on the tax foreclosure auction list. This is another area in which information is hard to come by and high potential for impact, Alvarez says, because people may be able to save their home or convince the county to not auction it.
- Final word – “In some ways, [Outlier Media] is an automated journalism service, and in other ways, it’s the highest-touch journalism project you could have,” says Alvarez. “Everybody has an opportunity to have a personal reporter work for them.”