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Data Delver: Andy Boyle, St. Petersburg Times

The last Data Delver I have on tap is Andy Boyle.  If you’re in the online journalism sphere on Twitter, you know this name, or at least, @andymboyle.  But let’s say you don’t.  If I introduce him as a reporter, that’s not the full picture.  A developer?  That’s not it either.  Web-savvy journo?  Still, nope.  All of the above, and then some?  Now, we’re getting somewhere.

I’ll just put it this way.  Andy, you’ve been an inspiration.  Watching your work while I was a student at Medill, and how much you enjoyed it, I knew some day I could do anything, if I could just set my mind to it, and find supportive mentors.

It’s a parallel thing.  Andy gets Matt Waite and Jeremy Bowers at the Times of the Southeast (St. Pete), I get Ben Welsh and Ken Schwencke at the Times of the Southwest (LA).  Match good mentors with journalistic enthusiasm and obsession, and you’ll get somewhere!

We both get to bring passion, skill and journalistic knowhow to the table.  We bug the people with the tech knowledge until we have a moment like this.   Maybe someday I’ll report in the field and code like Andy does.  But for now, my reporting consists of investigating the nuances of the still-large ship that is the LA Times, and looking at how it can be even better.  And at this point in time, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

It seems appropriate to post this interview with Andy now (Yes, I’m making excuses for delaying this for months and months….).  I chatted with him in March, just after the launch of his first Django app – MyLawmaker.  And I just launched my first one about two weeks ago.

I started these Data Delver interviews knowing no one in the field other than Derek Willis.  (And if you only got to know one person, he’s as good as it gets.)  And now, I feel like I know so many more.  And for some reason, I get to be a part of their ranks each day.  It’s a privilege, an honor, and an adrenaline rush like no other.

I’ll let Andy take it away in his own words now.

This transcript of my interview with Boyle is a part of my continuing series I’m calling “Data Delvers,” where I pass on transcripts, summaries, quotes and audio clips from conversations with journalists using technology to find, analyze and convey data-driven stories and/or projects to the modern audience.

Audio: Walking the line between reporter and developer is useful.

Extended transcript

Why is having an understanding of data important?
When we have meetings to discuss story ideas with the group I work with we mainly focus on breaking news on the web.  When somebody says something, it’s really nice to be able to go, “Oh, I know how they keep those records so I know exactly how you can ask questions to find out how many total XXX has happened this year.”  It really helps to have a background, it gives you a chance to dig deeper and get more context.

Is St. Pete working to get other reporters to get more up to speed on this?
I think there’s quite a few reporters who do have this type of skill or do have the basics.  They can use Excel; they can use Microsoft Access.  Actually, there’s a reporter who did a really awesome story on leaky underground storage tanks and where they are located.  My compadre, Darla Cameron, does a lot of GIS stuff, so she’s also a data nerd, like me. She was able to help him with that. A lot of people use databases on a pretty average basis and have some CAR training, but not as much huge stuff like the Wetlands project that the St. Pete Times did with Matt Waite and Craig Pittman a few years ago.  But things on a smaller scale are happening.

Going back to the MyLawmaker project, what was the genesis of that?
The genesis is that on Monday the state legislature starts so we print this thing every year in our Perspectives section which runs every Sunday.  We print opinion pieces and stuff like that in a section called ‘For a better Florida’.  One of our politics editors, Amy Hollyfield,  had sent an email out to one of the higher-ups  saying that there’s this project from the New York Times called Represent and another one at Oregon Live —  Your Government, where you type in your address and it shows you your state lawmakers, congressmen, city lawmakers, etc.  She asked if it would be possible for us to set up something to help people find their state representatives and state senators from their address?  This somehow made it to me and I go, “Yeah, yeah, that can be done; it’s possible.”  At that point I had no clue in my mind of how we were going to do that, but I knew it was possible because obviously someone else could do it. So we had the shape files; Darla already had the information.  Somehow we could write a program that would geocode your address and would ask what you wanted to see, and it would print out what you wanted.

So that was basically last Thursday and it is now Friday and we are ready to launch.  Thursday, about 3:30 in the afternoon, it was like, “Hey guys, do you think you can do this?”  I was taught a long time ago that if you think you can, try it. This is something that I really wanted to do.  It was an opportunity to try this stuff   I’ve been working on.  I’ve been working on some Django and Python with Matt Waite and Jeremy Bowers, so it was nice to spearhead a project and have ownership on something and work with a group of awesome people like Darla and Lee.  I’m really jazzed.

So how did you start getting into Django…just by being around Matt and Jeremy?

Yeah, that’s totally it.  He’ll [Matt Waite] browbeat you into believing what he believes.  When I went to the Indianapolis NICAR conference he had a thing, a bootcamp, for three or four of the days on frameworks, so that was Django and the basics of it.  And I remember when he showed it,  I thought, “Man, that’s way easier than making hundreds of  individual web pages and then having to edit the HTML in each one. “ I remember being a kid and having an AOL members’ web page and how horrible it was to have to update every single HTML file and I thought “Wow!  This is something that automatically creates this stuff.   That is sweet.   I need to learn this.” And that was in March of last year.

And then after that it was just me attempting to learn stuff and breaking everything and being really afraid that I’d destroy my computer and not becoming afraid of the terminal. It was a very long process.  There were a couple of projects over the summer that I worked on.  One was FCAT, which is an aptitude test given to students in public schools in Florida. We were able to make a searchable database for that.  I wrote the models on that, and then they did the rest of the heavy lifting.  I guess that was the first project I had any sort of help with.  Then we later had a project for high school sports, called Home Team, which is totally awesome.  I was able to see the inner workings  and it was really cool to see the process of how they were developing it and how it was being set up.  I wanted to build something, so when the opportunity came along for MyLawmaker, I jumped at the chance to do it.

So what did you end up using for the geocoding?

We used Google.    There’s a limit of 2,500 times per IP in a 24 hour period which is an issue if you hope to get a lot of hits on  your website.   So what we do is we actually pass it off to JavaScript on the client side, so the server’s IP address comes from the user’s computer. Not that we expect 2,500 hits a day, but we have no clue as to how many hits it will get.   But we thought it’d be nice just in case.  We don’t want people trying to use it and it’s broken.

Have you had requests from the community for anything like this?  It doesn’t have to be specifically MyLawmaker, but just more interactive stuff?
I think a lot of people really like it.  When our FCAT project launched in the summer, it got a ton of use.   It still kind of does.  A lot of those projects that are usually attached to stories initially get a lot of hits.  With a project like this once we told some of our colleagues about it, they were like  “Wow, that’s a great idea.” With the state senate website, you can only search by zip code.   Then it will tell you the districts that are in that zip code and you have to click on that and see if you are located on a little map of the district, so ours is actually a little better than part of the state legislature’s.  But I guess that’s the goal.  We want to make sure that people can find the information and find whom to call if they have an issue.   A lot of people were quite surprised…they didn’t believe who their state legislators were.  Said, “That can’t be true.”  But it was, and they wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Why do you see this type of work as important?
It’s interactive.  When you pick up a newspaper, you read a story and it kind of ends there.  What’s really cool about this is it helps you find out broader information.  You can go searching a given database online and become more aware of your community. That’s part of what we do, as journalists, and as news organizations, we try to inform the public.  To do it in a way that’s automated, that doesn’t require our constant supervision or our constant writing of stories, helps because it frees up time for us to do other stuff.  It still gives people information and more context when it comes to stories.  I believe that a well-informed populace is much better than an ill-informed populace.  It’s also really cool and lots of fun to do.

Do you enjoy living in both worlds – the reporting and the developing aspects?  What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Yes, I do.  I guess time is a disadvantage in everything we do.  Part of it is because of the reporting, I can come up with projects that we can do.  I think if I was only a code monkey and I was never out on the streets, I wouldn’t find out what data is available or what data we can build on our own. It also helps you keep track of the news.  Like this is being built in response to the fact that the state legislature is meeting on Monday to start a new session. If I was just a reporter, I wouldn’t be aware of different ways to think and inform the public.  And if I was just a developer, I would be a little blind to some of the opportunities that there are to inform the public, and make cool stuff.

Any other advice?
Something I wish I’d been told when I was younger is failure happens, especially with this sort of stuff, so you really need to get used to it, and we all fail.  Your failure is a failure, unless you learn.  Then, your failure becomes a win.  If you’re always trying to learn stuff, as a journalist, if you’re always working to develop different skill sets, whether it’s Web development, normal computer-assisted reporting, GIS, narrative storytelling, it all helps you, it all helps the other things.  Whatever new skill you learn in journalism will add to your big palette of rocking.

Would you recommend all or more reporters get into the coding side of things?

It doesn’t hurt.  It doesn’t hurt to understand the basics of data.  If you’re a city hall reporter, it helps to know basic Excel, it helps to know Access. There’s a ton of cool stuff you can do because of it.  If you are a feature writer, and you write longer narratives, and stuff like that, you can still find stories through databases, you can still find extra people to interview through those methods.  It helps in every aspect I think, just to have a little bit.  Whereas I have made the intense plunge into being a total nerd when it comes to this stuff, if that’s what you want to do, that’s what you want to do.  I don’t think that should be a requirement, but I think you should have at least the bare bones basics of what’s going on, because knowledge is power, and knowing is half the battle.

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First LAT app (or the butterfly on my windowsill) » »