By the start of 2022, it was clear that Americans had drastically accelerated the migration of their lives online as ad-hoc means of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic became permanent.
As the nation’s only tech-focused investigative newsroom, The Markup knew it needed to educate people about the trade-offs involved in the apps, websites, and data pools that were making them more efficient—to ask difficult questions and to answer them in innovative ways.
To understand how internet access is provisioned in the U.S., we built custom software, consulted with statisticians, and made hundreds of phone calls, establishing that poorer, historically redlined neighborhoods paid the same price for slow internet connections as other parts of town paid for speedy ones.
To understand what information Facebook collected through its ubiquitous Meta Pixel web tracker, we forged a partnership with the maker of the Firefox web browser, allowing people to easily give us their browsing data. This enabled us to show that hospital patient portals, telehealth providers, online tax preparation services, and even the U.S. government’s financial aid site were oversharing sensitive personal data.
To understand the harms of increasingly common software algorithms, we obtained public records showing Los Angeles’ vulnerability scoring system, critical to housing decisions, had for years consistently ranked Black unhoused people as less in need of homes than their White counterparts. In Wisconsin, we showed that an algorithm purporting to predict which teens might drop out of high school disproportionately raised false alarms about Black and Hispanic students.
And to understand an epidemic of carjackings against Uber and Lyft drivers, we painstakingly collected personal stories to illustrate the frustration and harm Uber was causing, slowing police work after on-the-job carjackings or shootings.
Today’s digital technology is highly complex and it can be hard to illustrate its harms or make people care about them, so we had to think creatively about how to showcase our findings. As part of our Uber coverage, we created the only database tracking carjackings or attempted carjackings of gig workers nationwide. To illustrate broadband pricing discrepancies, we created an interactive map featuring almost a million addresses across 45 U.S. cities. And we used everything from story-topping data illustrations (on the dropout algorithm story) to searchable data tables (on our Meta Pixel series) to pull people into article pages.
Collaboration was key to spreading the word about these efforts, whether with news organizations, readers, or activists. We partnered with news organizations like the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Associated Press; spoke with readers on social media about our reporting in Q&A sessions; and created tools like the United States Place Sampler and “story recipes” for activists and others who could extend our investigations.
Our peers are honoring this work. Our broadband pricing investigation won a Sigma award and a bronze medal from the Society of News Design for investigative infographics. The Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing gave awards to our Uber carjacking and broadband pricing stories.