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Learning about…pushing the envelope when paying it forward

Posted by on Jul 28, 2013 in Blog | One Comment

Me: “I think I talked too much on my panel yesterday.” Colleague: “Maybe that’s WHY you keep getting invited to panels.” Me: “Oh.”

I talk about The Mission (of data journalism) and paying it forward often on this blog. Smart people tell me that it’s important when I give talks/lead workshops, because it shows a tangible example of a successful (??) young woman in the field. Yet, the more I do it, the more invites I get, which is kind of awesome. Enough that I have to turn some of you down (sorry). But please keep asking, I’m happy to refer you to others, because there’s never enough opportunities to spread the mission.

I will always believe in balancing doing good work with talking about/showing how to do that work. A teacher without the real experience is weaker, and to get the experience but keep it totally do myself runs contrary to remembering where I came from. I’ve felt myself teetering on the edge of doing a bit too much outreach lately, so I’m still trying to find the right balance. (Aren’t we all?) (I need to focus on leveling up the skills on the really hard JavaScript now. Cool? Cool.)

Anyway, I found myself a few weeks ago in the relatively strange position (for me) of giving an SPJ workshop on a Saturday, and speaking on an ASNE panel on a Tuesday. (Video of the panel can be found here, which you may enjoy, if you are the type of person who reads this blog.)

What a week of prep and then making it happen. Kind of loved it, but the introvert in me needed to decompress after that much talking. Back to the code. (What? You think I’m a bubbly extrovert? Nope. I’m an introvert who’s really good at pretending to be an extrovert for the sake of The Mission. But I draw my strength from my alone time, which I need, or I get…unhappy.) Back to the topic at hand…

Two community members wrote to me to ask questions about my SPJ workshop, so I’m addressing them here. Chad Skelton of the Vancouver Sun asked me, of a blank spreadsheet demo I mentioned starting with: “What did you ask folks to put on it? What did you do next?” And Doug Mitchell asked: “Wondering if you could share some of the reaction from the students and perhaps, if you can remember, some of the questions they asked?”

To Doug’s question first, students seemed to be interested, although there weren’t as many questions afterward as I might have expected. In my appearances  I firmly believe in not sugar coating the truth (I just wrote “sugar coding”, which a) sounds delicious and b) tells you where my thoughts are right now.

In my sessions, I put code on the screen, and I define my concepts, but I move fast. There is too much of a perception that coding is magic. It’s not. It’s hard work, that like many things, when done well, looks effortless in the end. As I’ve been going around the city in weeks since then, people have approached me to tell me they were in the workshop, and that they are already applying tools and skills to stories. So that’s great to hear.

Questions were about what kind of formulas/level of stats knowledge I use to do analysis, how skills could be applied to current projects. We had a good conversation about extracting information from PDFs, which is always a hot topic. We talked a little about the timescale, and the steps to complete a project, in my work at the AP.

Now, to Chad’s question. He wanted specifically to hear more about the spreadsheet demo. See, in our work, data journalism is a messy business. The amount of time I spend cleaning data is so large. I was told it would be that way by professors and colleagues throughout the business, but I had no clue. To say that is true, is fine, but how could I show it?

I started this three-hour workshop by announcing that before I could start, I needed some help. I asked ten people to come to the front of the room, and fill in an empty spreadsheet. I had columns for name, where you are from, how many pets you have now, how many pets you had five years ago, and how many years you have been in your current business.

Only about 13 people volunteered, so I let them all fill it out. As I kept talking, the people filling it out interrupted me to ask questions, if they should separate city/state into separate columns, etc. That was a lesson about keeping different data types in discrete columns, but someone else brought it up before I could say it.

After everyone sat down, I was going back over the information, and we had instances of people missing a column, entering certain columns on wrong lines, accidentally autocompleting with someone else’s info. This isn’t a judgment on anyone, but these are all things that actually happen. As a data journalist, I am of the firm belief that one needs to be on the lookout for these types of discrepancies, lest they pass you by. I am very cautious, every day, because one misplaced cell in a spreadsheet is a fact error. And back in j-school, a fact error garnered you an F on an assignment. And this is real life.

I couldn’t have asked for this exercise to work any better. I also then used the data assembled to demonstrate how to interview data, search for outliers, etc. But it was obvious I wasn’t showing some one-off case, because I had no control over what data I would be demonstrating here. I would definitely use this again. I was most worried about the chaos of people coming up to the podium and entering their info, but that actually was pretty orderly, and was timed well with the intro I gave while students were doing data entry.

How will I continue to apply these lessons of showing real-world scenarios, and trying to make relatable, practical comments when I pay it forward in the future? Well, the week after next I’m speaking on an AEJMC panel, as well as a possible additional opportunity. So, we shall see.

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