Journalists: Embrace Your Inner Geek

Last week I gave a guest lecture to journalism students at Langara College in Vancouver, B.C. Alex Samur, the regular instructor had asked me to give a basic introduction to data journalism: what it is; why we need it, and most importantly, how to do it.

For the students, and anyone else who’s interested in this geeky realm, you can download the presentation here.

I took examples from the greats like The Guardian and NY Times to inspire the students and extolled the virtues of open data and FOI/ATI requests to get original data sets.

I also introduced the students to GeoCommons (just one of many great, free mapping tools out there) which allows you to add layers of data. I walked through a map I’d created for The Vancouver Suna map of five years’ worth of bicycle-car collision data from ICBC. The map had numerous layers: the collision data itself; the city’s bike lanes; the city’s neighbourhood boundaries, and a heat map of those regions showing which neighbourhoods were the most ‘dangerous’. I showed the students how this data can tell many stories: the most dangerous intersection; how many accidents actually happen on bike lanes, and how the introduction of bike lanes has not led to a decrease in incidents.

I also attempted to give a brief introduction to coding webscraping routines or ‘bots to go out into the ether for you and to gather data to automatically tweet or map it. I’ve developed a few prototypes which tweet out failed restaurant inspections and map new bedbug reports in the city. There was definite interest but at the end of a long day, I think this was informational overload!