It’s Time for Journalists to Learn Math

January 30, 2013

Watching someone like Matt Ericson of the New York Times show off the fabulous data visualizations that his department makes is a little like watching a master magician. What is there, after all, to pulling a rabbit out of a hat? Bubble maps of the words most used at the Democratic and GOP national conventions? What’s the big deal about that? A graphic of every male 100-meter sprint Olympic medalist ever, showing how much faster athletes have gotten over time? Ok, that’s pretty impressive. And the two-and-a-half minute video with pitch-by-pitch visualizations of Yankees closer Mariano Rivera? Well, that’s kind of like sawing a lady in half.

Still, even when lifting the curtain and showing what went into these pieces of data visualization, it still looks easy.

It’s not.

I didn’t actually see anyone crying during a 24-hour Hack Jersey hackathon at Montclair State University last weekend, but it came pretty close. In a fit of pique Sunday afternoon, participant Elaine Clisham tweeted: “Biggest takeaway for me from #HackJersey? I am an ignorant, useless idiot. Aiming to change that.”

Linda Moss, who covered the event for The Record, tweeted: “Boy, do I have a lot to learn about data journalism.”

Almost all of us do.

The fact that American students lag their peers in other countries in math skills is well known. And data journalism — surprise, surprise — is math. It’s not a skill that most of us who chose journalism as a profession have given much thought to either. Until now. Now we see that if we want to do more than chase fires, if we want to actually compare fires and see trends, we have to learn the tools of data journalism. We need to learn spreadsheets, fusion tables, API keys, Javascript and more.

Hackathons aren’t uncommon, but hackathons that combine the skills of journalists and coders are still rare. One thing we learned this weekend is that combining those skills effectively during a 24-hour contest isn’t easy. There were times when the journalists were just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, watching the coders on their teams fire away at code. And there were teams that didn’t finish because the single coder they relied upon conked out and didn’t make it in the next morning.

I got my little lesson in how I lacked this proficiency Monday afternoon, the day after Hack Jersey ended. I am taking a data visualization class being offered online by the Knight Foundation, and I’d been so busy organizing parking and food and 80 million other Hack Jersey logistics that I’d never had time to do my homework from the previous week. I looked at the homework, started it, and soon found myself close to tears — just as I had in fifth grade when I was having trouble with Roman numerals. The problem was that, aside for totting up a column of numbers, I had never learned how to use functions to manipulate data in spreadsheets. Google Forms kept returning the message “The required data format for the Column chart doesn’t match the current data.” Same for the Pie chart, the Line chart and every other chart I had at my disposal.

I reached out to my professor, who asked for a screenshot of what I was doing, and she sent a screenshot back that suddenly made it all clear. Within minutes I had created a pie chart of my Facebook friends’ favorite characters on Downton Abbey. (No surprise, it’s the Dowager Countess.) I was positively giddy as more and more data started showing up in my spreadsheet, and consequently in my chart. Hey, here’s a vote for Lady Mary!

To be sure, the programmers last weekend had more important things to count than the relative popularity of Lord Grantham and Matthew Crawley. The winning project, CrashDataNJ, managed to identify the most dangerous stretch of the Garden State Parkway: the 10-mile segment between mile marker 130 and mile marker 140. The Cost of Radiology in NJ was able to show how widely the cost of a mammogram varies in a single county.

Click graph to enlarge in a new window

But I’m still extraordinarily proud of my Downton Abbey visualization. I posted it on Facebook, tweeted it, and — at the encouragement of my own web developer — printed it out and tacked it on my bulletin board.

It’s fun to gain a competency, and it’s especially gratifying when that competency is hard won. I hope that Hack Jersey is the first step for me, for the journalists who attended and for the field of journalism as a whole. That way we can do more than tell breaking stories. We can measure what we cover, compare, add context, see how stories develop over time.

Image: Ryan Miller.

Debbie Galant is director of the NJ News Commons, a project of the School of Communication in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The NJ News Commons is also part of Montclair State’s Center for Cooperative Media, which is funded by the Dodge Foundation as well as the John L. and James S. Knight Foundation. It co-sponsored last weekend’s hackathon, along with Knight-Mozilla Open News, and was one of two prime organizers of the event, the other being Tom Meagher of Data First Media.