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“Demos, not memos”: My first Django app

UPDATE:  GitHub repo with code for the app can be found here: http://github.com/michelleminkoff/oscars Thanks to Dave Stanton for a marvelous tutorial linked in the comments.

“Demos, not memos.”  It’s my new mantra.  A phrase well known in the CAR community, especially after this blog post from Matt Waite, I subscribe to the idea for two reasons.  1) When presenting a new type of journalism to a management that unfortunately doesn’t always get it, it’s easier if they see it. 2) If I tell you I can do something, couldn’t anyone say that?  Why not just get it done?

There was a recent #wjchat on Twitter discussing coding and journalism.  A wealth of information was exchanged, and fortunately many of the top minds in data and web journalism came to share thoughts, answer questions, and give advice.  If I had to take away one thing from that chat, it’s this:  The best way to learn is to do.   It can be hard to find the time, quite frankly.  But if you love something, it’s not really work.  So, I spent my Sunday building a Django app start to finish.

I’ve been becoming increasingly interested in Web dev, and I’ve been playing with Python and Django, but I hadn’t made anything yet.  Some people say Web frameworks are so powerful you can hack out an application in 20 minutes.  I think you give up a lot on quality approaching a project that way.  But I was able to produce a robust app in a day, which seems to be good for a beginner.

The app explores winners of acting-related Academy Awards from 1990 to the present, and the age they were when they received their award. The distribution is intriguing.  (Source code can be found in a zip file here, I want to put it on GitHub.  However, I’m having some trouble setting up a repo, and other work is calling for now.)

I still want to include more ways to sort, other features, and there’s almost no CSS.  Pictures of the various actors would be great.  But for now, it stands as a piece of journalism that can be navigated, that allows the user to explore.  It is a story that embraces, and demands, the power of the Web.  Whether I’m proving it to myself, a supervisor, a professor, or a future employer, I have evidence of my knowledge now.  As journalists, we ask our sources for proof all the time.  And so, it’s understandable that we demand it of each other as well.

As a data-lover, the power behind this framework is staggering.  Once you get the information into a database, it’s fairly simple to take it from millions of numbers to a series of connected pages that tell a story.  I know it’s not the only option for such work, but after seeing it in action for the first time, I was just blown away.  It is a data visualization in its own way, visualized by contextualizing the numbers within words, lists and pages that relate to each other.  I take visualization to mean anything that takes the numbers out of their cells and helps a user to understand them.

If you’re just thinking about taking the time to build your first app, I highly recommend it.  You’ll learn more than you could from a book, it inspires you to build more, now that you see the possibilities.  And it encourages you to keep going.  Because you can make all the mistakes in the world, the computer doesn’t judge.  But from my perspective, you make something that comes together, and works, and it’s just a beautiful feeling.  I can’t wait to push it further.

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