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.







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