If you want to know what the future of investigative reporting might look like online, check out what the Las Vegas Sun has done with its special section on Flight Delays.

It’s an interactive map and database on plane delays at McCarran Airport. You can check a particular flight, look at patterns in delays to other airports and find out how long it takes to go through security checkpoints at different gates at different times of the day.

And there’s a video of interviews with people at the airport, along with time-lapse videos showing planes arriving at the airport and the bustle in the baggage claim area.

And oh by the way, the page also links to an in-depth story the newspaper did analyzing the problem with flight delays and what was causing it.

Which is why I think this may show the future of investigative reporting – featuring a map or database that people can play with to get very personalized information: What delays am I facing at security checkpoints at my gate? What’s the likelihood my flight is going to be delayed? How big a problem is the airport I’m planning to fly to?

And then using people’s engagement with the information to draw them to the stories that provide the background and context for understanding the data they’ve just explored.

This idea is of particular interest to me, because it fits in with a project I’m currently doing on video games, in which we’re trying to use game play to help inform a community about its history and heritage.

Interactive, customizable databases accomplish much the same thing, allowing people to “play” with the data. On the Las Vegas site I found myself clicking on the links on the map and sifting through the flights database just out of curiosity and for fun, even though I rarely fly to that airport.

And as a former investigative reporter, I’m especially concerned with how digital technology can be used to do better investigative stories. Making use of the data that lies behind most investigative projects is one way to give people a personal stake in the information contained in those stories.

Much of the attention of news organizations right now is on using the Internet for breaking news and 24/7 coverage at continuous news desks and doing quick podcasts and blog posts. But what journalists really have to offer are the skills, time and resources needed to do in-depth reporting.

Taking long investigative projects written for newspapers or magazines or as TV/radio documentaries and then shoveling them online, perhaps dressed up with a little multimedia, is only jamming old media forms into a new media pipe. But understanding how to present data in an appealing way, and making that data accessible so people can mess around with it and create their own “stories,” is taking advantage of what digital has to offer.

Several of the other Knight Challenge Grant winners are already doing great work in this area. Rich Gordon’s initiative at Northwestern to get computer programmers to come to journalism schools will help create the tools needed to build audiences for quality journalism. Rich also has written about the importance of databases in his article on Data as journalism, journalism as data .

Adrian Holovaty has launched the EveryBlock site that aggregates local data from a variety of databases. Imagine the stories that could grow out of this data if the public and journalists worked together on analyzing it.

Adrian has spoken before about the need to get reporters to focus on the raw data they gather for a story, and how that might be put online. I’d only go a step further and try to get reporters to think about how online databases might be the gateway into their stories, rather than the other way around.

The folks at the Gotham Gazette have been exploring how news organizations can make use of online games to cover complex stories and how to present data in a visually more effective way.

And Ingeborg Endter and Chris Csikszentmihályi at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media suggested some good resources for thinking about how to better present data online:

IBM’s Many Eyes project

– Ben Fry’s book on Visualizing Data and some of his projects when he was at the MIT Media Lab.

I’ve also started collecting links on the delicious social bookmarking site to some online databases and map mashups.

If anyone has more ideas on this, or suggestions about other resources, I’d love to hear them.