Start-up lessons: A homicide site in DC

What can you learn about design and development from a site about homicides? A lot, it turns out.

Last week in Washington, Laura Amico and her husband, Chris Amico, talked about the site the pair developed to track homicides in the nation’s capital, Homicide Watch D.C. at the Online News Association meetup.

The site features this signature line:
Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.

“We believe that how people live and die here, and how those deaths are recognized, matters to every one of us,” Laura Amico writes in explaining the site, which launched in September of 2010.

She was an out-of-work crime reporter who had moved from Northern California because of her husband’s new job in Washington — Chris had landed a developer/journalist position at PBS NewsHour and subsequently moved to NPR. Unable to find a reporting job, Laura decided to create her own, developing a site she’s passionate about and tapping into the power of community.

Laura and Chris Amico talk about the lessons they have learned starting up a site that tracks all the homicides in the District of Columbia.

Less than a year after the site launched, it became a notable entry in the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovation in Journalism.

It also, importantly, forces more accountability among the people who investigate the crimes. Because the site now features the written reports from each homicide (the site uses DocumentCloud for much of this and, trust me, it’s an arduous process to get all these documents), Laura said she has noticed that some officers are more careful, knowing their work will receive a more public viewing.

The site added a custom database to track homicide cases from crime to conviction last summer, offering the easiest and most-comprehensive way to monitor where a case stands at any given moment. It also features mapping and a calendar to help keep tabs on homicides.

Laura said she also keeps a close watch on the site’s analytics, which act as a tip sheet. “I think of my analytics a lot like my scanner,” Laura said. “If I know what I’m listening for, I can find a story.”

In effect, it works this way: Someone may be searching for information on a crime, which may not have been written about yet. If Laura keeps tracks carefully, she can see something that may not yet have surfaced in other media. (Hear Laura talk about that more here in an interview with On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone.)


Photographer Lloyd Wolf documents the street shrines and ad hoc memorials that spring up on sidewalks and in other public places in Washington. He talks with reporter Tom LeGro about his work and what makes these memorials meaningful for the site's 2011 Year in Review.

A robust Twitter account also aids in getting out information, as well as serving as a tip sheet. Laura said she follows anyone who follows the account so people can direct message with sensitive information.

The site has broken news many times. It’s also getting the attention of the political establishment — Mayor Vincent Gray and U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen both participated in the site’s Year in Review 2011 — and other media, with various news outlets around the region crediting Homicide Watch D.C. with being first.

The next major step for the site will be finding a sustaining business model.

Right now, the project exists on donations and benefits from expertise Laura has gained through various fellowships. A lot of her time — when she’s not reporting — goes into business development, while Chris spends much of his time building out the site (and, he will candidly tell you, learning how to be a better designer).

The couple aim to license the model to newsrooms. The pair said at last week’s meetup that they hope to be able to announce partnership(s) soon. Here’s hoping.

Laura was kind enough to share on her Tumblr the last slide of the presentation, which resonates for anyone who’s ever tried to design anything.

Lessons learned

  • Do what you can—now.
  • Use what you can—now.
  • Build what you can—now.
  • Take risks.
  • Evaluate.
  • Be public.
  • Think creatively.
  • Trust that things will fall into place.
  • But do what you can to make them fall into the right places.
  • Never stop looking forward.
  • Find your purpose, define it, and live by it.
    • (Laura offered brief explanations for each point in an ONA post.)

      Many of us talk about starting something, only to retreat. It’s refreshing to see the opposite, people plunging right in — in an incredibly public way — to test the waters and prove out concepts in real time. It’s an added bonus that the work is such an astounding public service.

      Matt Mansfield is the co-director of the Medill School of Journalism‘s Washington program and an associate professor at Northwestern University. Mansfield, a former president of the Society for News Design, was a deputy managing editor at the San Jose Mercury News until 2008, when he started teaching. He’s a co-organizer of the Online News Association meetups in D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @mattmansfield