Digging Data: Two days at NewsHack AZ

Have you ever been to a news hack?

Guessing not. I hadn’t either until NewsHackAZ this past weekend. Assembled by University of Arizona’s journalism school and the Arizona Daily Star, the paper here in Tucson, NewsHackAZ brought in data reporters, digital editors, innovation directors and multimedia gurus to teach us editors, writers and journalizers of all stripes. As you can imagine, the attendees were mostly local — folks from media outlets in Tucson, Phoenix, Nogales. A dozen or so UArizona students (grad and undergrad) comprised a chunk of the 70-some attendees on Saturday, Day 1. And me.

For someone who’s spent the last five years in a print publishing environment, the idea of a “hack” as it applies to journalism has inspired within me a mix of curiosity and a craving for new chops. You could call it a digital journalism bootcamp. I’ve always figured that deciphering Excel spreadsheets, sniffing out trends or stories from raw numbers, and deploying charts or visuals — even the most rudimentary — are weapons every journalist should have a basic familiarity with.

Coding, which I’d consider the next technical notch above data reporting, has made me consider going after an entirely new career.

But the idea of a “hack” also heightens my awareness of the things I never learned, which makes skills outside the realm of ordinary writing, reporting and editing slightly intimidating. Luckily, I’m not alone. When I heard about NewsHackAZ back in December, I signed up immediately. Fifteen bucks? Done.

We learn: Saturday, Day 1

On Day 1, we convened in the study lab of UofA’s Science and Engineering library. The room was laden with flat-screen TVs that mirrored the instructors’ computers so we could click along on our laptops.

After an intro over donuts and coffee, we chose between beginner or advanced courses on the same topic: Data journalism 101 OR SQLite for data journalism; basic HTML+CSS coding or programming (i.e. setting up a server, using APIs and Python to scrape data); mapping data with Google Fusion or GIS; and creating charts/graphics with Google Sheets or developing infographic visuals with Tableau. I stuck around for all the beginner clinics except for the programming one, since I took a similar course at General Assembly in Chicago in December.

I’m surprised I walked away from each class with a renewed confidence in front of my laptop, and it was a prevailing mood I sensed from just about everyone. After the courses ended around 4:30 p.m., NewsHackAZ’s emcee Mike McKisson announced the teams of five into which we all divided. By noon Sunday, the teams had to come up with a story based on data and illustrate it with the tools we just learned to use. The meant we had half a day to pore over data in Excel, use it to tell a story with charts, maps and visuals, and code a website to display our work. Call it a deadline situation.

At 5:30, the NewsHackAZ crew had one last assignment: happy hour. As every journalist knows, meeting at the bar is de rigueur to stay current in the profession. We flocked to the second floor of Gentle Ben’s Brewing Co. for some free pitchers, doubtless intended to unlock our team’s idea for the hack project. After about two hours and several rounds, a few people trickled away to get started on their projects, but I sensed that the majority went on to another bar, or simply called it a night.

We build: Sunday, Day 2

A little bleary-eyed from journalizing at Gentle Ben’s and another bar after, I rolled out of bed and biked the two miles to the library when it opened at 8. Only a few of the instructors were there and a couple fellow hackers, perhaps a bit overzealous to get started on the project as the coffee pots were still brewing, and not many people arrived until closer to 9. Ultimately, about half the attendees showed up for Day 2, but it sounded like many had only planned on coming for one day.

Our projects weren’t limited to the tools we learned on Day 1, but ideally the instructors wanted to see that we learned something. I was glad to work with Norma Gonzalez, a sports reporter from the Nogales News; Jenny Hijazi, a UofA grad student and reporter; and Samantha Munsey, a web producer from the Daily Star.

Using sets of data that NewsHackAZ made available to us on Github, my group (Team Super!) focused on juvenile asylum grant/deny rates between 2010–2014 for youths from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The data, originating from the Executive Office of Immigration Review, indicated that juveniles (accompanied or otherwise) must apply for asylum at one of eight offices in the U.S., depending on what office represents the state the seekers are in. We found, ultimately, based on the grant/deny rates for each office, that a seeker’s best bet for asylum is to apply in New York City. The worst chance of getting asylum is through the Chicago office.

We wanted to attribute this to the specific judge at each office: By finding out who they were, what their political leanings were, ethnicity and judging record, we could paint a picture of either a progressive, sympathetic judge, or one that wasn’t. We never got that far because our deadline loomed, and we had to get our website up. The story’s hook was timely, as The Washington Post reported just before Christmas 2015 that Immigration and Customs Enforcement planned raids to deport both adults and children who’ve entered the U.S. in recent years, many of them fleeing violence in their Central America homes.

Through some divide and conquer, we built a pretty cool site. Using TimelineJS, Norma and Samantha illustrated what the process of applying for asylum entails for a juvenile. Jenny sifted through our data and produced two nifty charts with Google Sheets, and we built a Google Map showing the EOIR asylum offices with accompany grant/deny rates. I did most of the under-the-hood coding using Sublime Text, a text editor that many developers use, but everyone on our team took a crack at solving some unruly line of HTML that gave me trouble.

Our website was one of about 10 final projects: http://newshackaz.org/super/

Here’s the rest: http://newshackaz.org/

Everyone worked through lunch until 1 p.m. when our deadline hit. Followed by the release of a collective sigh.

Long story short, Team Penguin, Team Hooray, and Team Frog were the three finalists (see links within the above link). Team Frog emerged as the winning team, taking home $250, for looking at industrial fines data. Their intro explains the story best:

The 10 biggest fines that the State Industrial Commission levied since 2011 exceeded $65,000, compared to a $9,624 statewide average slapped on 390 total violators in that period.

At the end of presentations, around 3 p.m., Mike McKisson addressed the group, explaining why the instructors chose the winning site. But perhaps more importantly, he said how he and the instructors were blown away by how quickly everyone — ranging in experience from undergrad student to veteran reporter — picked up and applied what we learned.

With a day’s hindsight, I’d say the tools we used weren’t as intimidating, challenging or foreign as I expected. However I wouldn’t say that anyone could absorb and apply them as quickly. Underlying each team’s story and website were the fundamental tactics brought by each journalist in the room: story telling, production, and getting it all done on deadline. The stuff that newsrooms and editorial operations are made of.

I’ll have more thoughts on this as I digest the data viz knowledge being indexed in my brain. For those reading from NewsHackAZ, thanks again. I know it was a first for the hosts, as the hack was a first for me.

If you have the chance to go to a similar news/data hack, do it. It won’t be a waste of your time.



Day 17: 1,000 miles in – crossing the Ohio River

7/1/15: 83 miles, Milford, Ohio, to Sanders, Ky.

We rolled out of Milford on a hot and humid morning. There wasn’t much for showers where we camped, so we did a hobo-bath at the park bathroom across the river. We stopped in Newtown at the United Dairy Farmers (a convenience store in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky), which kicks total ass and has ice cream, by the way, and loaded up on food. A few folks came up to John and I asking about our trip. Suzie, a home-care nurse, wished us luck, as well as a guy helping a friend move. “Where’s the motor?” he joked, pointing at our bikes.

The OTE took us by Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport, and into downtown along the Ohio River. It was a warm Wednesday afternoon, and the Reds were playing an afternoon game. It was bumping downtown.

When I describe the dynamics of Ohio’s cities to people who don’t know Ohio, I usually say that Cleveland and Cincinnati are tough rivals in every sense: politically, economically, culturally, and in sports. But if you ask people from either city what they think about Columbus, they’ll say, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” and tell you about their brother or in-laws who live there.

In reality, in almost 30 years, I’ve never really spent much time in Cincinnati. And I have to admit, its riverfront park along the Ohio, as well as the routes in and around town, are the best in Ohio. Columbus’ path network is great, no doubt. But Cincinnati is very hilly, so the skyline is obscured unless you’re downtown or close to it. As I rode into town, the city peeked out and gradually revealed itself from behind hills until it all came together with the river, the bridges, and skyline all against a backdrop of Ohio River Valley hills.

It took John and I a while to find the entrance to the Purple People Bridge, the pedestrian-only span across the Ohio to Newport, Kentucky. Once we did, we stopped at a bar for a celebratory Rhinegeist beer before beginning what would be a week of climbing in and out of the Ohio River Valley.

The plan now was to follow the Adventure Cycling’s Underground Railroad route to connect with the TransAmerica trail in western Kentucky. But I realized I didn’t have the maps (Shit!) for this section on paper. Luckily it was loaded into my RidewithGPS. I was a bit annoyed that I’d have to stare at my iPhone for the next few days, but it ended up working. We just had to find our own places to stay.

The route:

We made the long slog up and out of Cincinnati and into Kentucky. A few cars honked at us as we remembered what going slow was like. Wound our way through suburbs that gave way to smooth, rolling farmland. What I’d heard about Kentucky was true: the edges of the country and state routes are lined with rumble strips, forcing us further into the road than we’d normally be, and the dogs. We must’ve been chased by about 30 dogs (more on that later).

John and I pushed on to about 8:30 p.m. and made it to Eagle Valley Campground in Sanders. Aside from some RVs already set up for the 4th of July, we were the only people there.

As I set up my camp, a Killdeer bird was squawking at me, doing its fake “I’m dying” kabuki death dance. John explained they do this as an act of self-sacrifice to distract predators from their eggs. I just thought the bird was crazy.


Day 16: To Cincinnati

6/30/15: 81 miles, London, Ohio, to Milford, Ohio

About 20 minutes after I woke up — just taking my first sips of coffee — John texted me and said he was in town. It was about 8 a.m. I was surprised, honestly. I figured the road would decide the man’s fate, and yet, he came out on top.

I packed up and we met here:

Had coffee and a bike shop inside. #ohiotoerietrail #Ohio #coffee #bikeshop #biketour

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This was the first coffee shop, and business for the matter, that catered to touring cyclists on the Ohio-to-Erie Trail. It had a guest book, wall of jerseys, and bike posters all over the place. It wasn’t all unlike a place you’d find on a more heavily traveled Adventure Cycling route. The owner, Mike, told us of his tours. John and I met in person, had a red eye coffee (shot of espresso poured into a cup of coffee). We went over the OTE maps and chatted, even though it felt like we knew each other from our conversations hitherto.

Unlike the ride from Cleveland to Columbus, the terrain from Columbus to Cincinnati is flat and entirely on a paved bike path. It’s awesome. I’d always wanted to ride across Ohio, where I’ve spent most of my life, and this path was the highlight for sure.

#Xenia #Ohio #travelbybike #b&o #trains #station #ohiotoerietrail

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The Prairie Grass Trail shoots you west from Columbus to Xenia.

#Xenia #ohiotoerietrail #Ohio

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There, you connect to the Little Miami Scenic Trail to Cincinnati. I’ll say it here, loud and clear:

The Little Miami Scenic Trail is the nicest bike path in Ohio. It’s smooth, graded, straight, goes through small towns ranging from abandoned and sleepy to bustling and charming.

We ended up in Milford, a river town about 15 miles from downtown Cincinnati. We went into an outdoors store there, Roads Rivers and Trails. They told us for $5, we could camp in the leanto at the park along the river. Hell yes. Perfect. We grabbed dinner in town, then went to set up.

Then the beer fairy showed up. Ed, the brother of one of my best friend’s wife (all from Cincy), saw on Facebook that I was in Cincy, texted me and decided to come meet John and I. He brought a 6-pack for us all, so we went to work, joked around and listened to the cresting, swollen Little Miami River rush its way to the Ohio.

Tomorrow, we’d enter Kentucky.


Day 15: Ohio flattens out

6/29/15: 40 miles, Columbus, Ohio, to London, Ohio

A couple weeks ago, I’d received an email from a guy named John in Columbus. He’d seen my itinerary posted on the Adventure Cycling Association’s website, where riders can link up with others on tour. He said he was considering riding to San Francisco and asked if he could jump on my train. I told him sure, and that I’d be leaving Columbus on the 29th. We’d exchanged a few candid emails and had a phone call over the past two weeks, and seemed like we’d get along. You have to go over everything: experience, expected mileage, camping habits, if the person is flexible to take rest days and such, and conversely, if they’re into drugs and partying, and so on.

Today was the 29th, and when I talked to John, he didn’t sound ready. At first, I was going to wait. But what if he wasn’t ready to ride the next day? After all, I’d never met the guy, so I had no commitment to ride. It was raining that morning, and rain sucks, but it doesn’t deter me (which you’ll know from reading past posts here). I called John and told him I was going to head out of town, and that I’d be in London, Ohio, if he wanted to catch up the next day. No hard feelings, but I had eaten a ton the night before, packed up and mentally was ready. He understood and said he’d try to meet me the next day.

After the wedding weekend, Michelle and I spent Sunday night at the Buxton Inn in Granville where I went to college. Had dinner with a former professor and showed Michelle around campus (from the car, in the rain). She drove me to REI at Easton in Columbus for some last-minute odds and ends, food and more. And it was roughly where I’d left off on Friday. I made my way to the Alum Creek Trail, connecting to the Interstate 670 path to downtown Columbus and eventually onto the Scioto Greenway Trail where I’d be back on the OTE. I was soaked.

I rode the Greenway out of downtown and onto a road section that would take me out of Columbus’ west side. Thus began the worst stretch of road I’ve ridden then entire trip. For some reason, the OTE maps led me along U.S. 40 (Broad Street) for three miles. It was potholed, cracked, crumbled when it wasn’t under construction, giving me no room to jockey with orange barrels and rain-spraying trucks trying to get on I-270. I stopped to map my way off U.S. 40 down side streets, cut a corner and got away from the mess. Maybe Broad Street was in good shape at one time, but whoever is calling the shots for the OTE should reconsider this stretch. It sucks.

Then, of course, I check the OTE website, where I find this note:

“The printed map instructs people to use Broad Street, however until October 2016, it is under major construction west of I-270 and these conditions make an already challenging connection nearly impossible. Ohio to Erie Trail leadership provides the following alternative route which is 9.17 miles going from SW to NE.”

Face palm. I’ve gotten better at checking route updates online.

The rain kept up all day through the Camp Chase Trail, Darby Creek Park and into Madison County. I stayed at a $25 hostel in a carriage house behind the Alexandra’s B&B, where a guy named George let me in. The place was half-garage, half-hostel. George had a motor attached to some Wal-Mart bike, and it made the whole place smell like gas. I tried to keep air moving in the place. I was the only person there, luckily, so I spread out, turned on some fans, and listened to Marc Maron’s interview with Obama.

Today was the first day of the rest of the trip. In some ways, after taking time off the bike, I was beginning the trip over again. From here, the schedule was clear for me to get to the West Coast.

John texted me and said he’d try to meet me in London the next morning. I ate half of a stromboli from Phat Daddy’s Pizza and passed out.


Day 14: Arriving in Columbus

6/26/15: 55 miles, Mount Vernon, Ohio, to downtown Columbus, Ohio

I was due to be in a rehearsal dinner for my pals Dan and Brigid by 4 p.m. in Columbus, so I got out early. The Heart of Ohio Trail, another paved beauty, shot me south toward Delaware County, where I’d ride through Sunbury and into the northeast side of Columbus. My fellow Denisonian, David Strong, who lives in Westerville, and I made last-minute plans to meet up since the OTE went right by his house. As I got on the Westerville Bike and Walk trail, David headed north and met me to guide my through Westerville like a harbor master would at a port:

We hung out at his house for about a half hour, where I met his wife, kids, in-laws, and the rest of his bikes. David and I never really rode much at Denison, despite the incredible roads, paths and off road options. Alas, we were young and dumb. But we were getting our miles in now as grown men.

David rode with me to Schrock Road, a bike-laned road that connects to the Olentangy River path that goes through OSU’s campus and into downtown Columbus. I used to ride these routes when I lived in Columbus for the summer of 2007. Got nostalgic instantly. Especially when I saw the Budweiser plant, one of 12 major breweries for Bud. (Just kidding.)

I made it downtown to the Hyatt where we stayed for the wedding with an hour or so to spare in between a quick lunch at North Star Cafe, laundry, a shave and a stretch. Made it happen. Credit to my girlfriend for keeping me on my toes, otherwise I’dve been late like I usually am.