launches online database of California's war dead

Thought I’d share with OJR readers a project I’ve been working on: Last week the Los Angeles Times launched a database of California’s military dead in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This story does a nice job of introducing the database:

Across the nation, more than 4,600 have died while in service to the country. Of the California dead, the median age was 23. Their deaths left 205 widows and three widowers, and 300 children who will grow up without their fathers, two without their mothers. Thirty-eight of the 492 were engaged.

About 67% were in the Army, Army National Guard or Army Reserve; 27% in the Marine Corps or Marine Corps Reserve. The Air Force accounted for 2%, the Navy and Navy Reserve for 4%. Two percent of those killed were women.

At least 59 were immigrants.

About Eric Ulken

Eric Ulken left his job as editor for interactive technology at the Los Angeles Times in November 2008 to travel and report on trends and best practices in online journalism. He is a 2005 graduate of the communication management M.A. program at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, where he was an editor and producer for OJR and Japan Media Review. He has been a web monkey at newsrooms in six states, including his native Louisiana.


  1. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for pointing this out. Could you tell us a little more about what went into this on the back end? Is this a native database function within your CMS? If not, did you have this developed from scratch, or does it use some commonly available tools?

  2. Our legacy CMS would not have been able to support an app like this, and though our tech team is working on platforms that would enable this kind of development, our tight deadline made it pretty much impossible to get this into their pipeline. So “off the reservation” we went.

    Ben Welsh, our database guru, built the app in a couple weeks using Django, which has the nice benefit of dynamically generating an admin interface for whatever schema you define. This made it possible to easily distribute the data entry across the metro staff, so that reporters who had written obits were able to input the particulars of the people they reported on.

    The admin interface was set up on an internal server ahead of time, and while reporters and editors were working on the content, we were designing the templates and building the app.

    Because we hadn’t used this production setup (a beta Django GridContainer from Media Temple) before, we were a little nervous about how it would scale, but from what I could tell, the server handled the Memorial Day traffic (~100,000 pageviews to the database) without breaking a sweat.

    (Ben’s also got a nice write-up on his blog.)