Diving into Data: How to Jumpstart Data Analysis in Media Organizations

Take dozens of smart people, given them a ton of information, and demand they make sense out of it under deadline pressure. Journalists know this as life in a newsroom, and they see great work emerge from such an environment every day. The same concept works for service in the age of data, as I witnessed at last weekend’s A2 DataDive.

Students and local residents gathered on the University of Michigan’s campus for two days to crunch data, give back to local nonprofits, and learn a thing or two. Hackathon events such as these offer a model through which media organizations can expand their data journalism efforts and leverage local expertise.

One section of the Data Journalism Handbook describes how a Danish news organization used a hackathon to help journalists and web developers understand each others’ worldviews. Laura Rabaino offers a how-to guide on how to organize a newsroom hackathon after her experience with one at the Seattle Times.

The DataDive is a hackathon with a public service twist. For months before the actual event, the organizers (of which I am one), worked with four local nonprofit organizations to determine what data they had and what they hoped to do with it. At the event, each nonprofit gave a brief presentation that outlined their mission, their data, and their questions.

Then, we let people loose. Anyone who was interested could participate. Volunteers worked all day Saturday and during the morning on Sunday to analyze and visualize the data. On Sunday afternoon, each team presented their findings.

The most heartening and motivating element of the entire experience was seeing just how excited people get.
“I love this stuff,” volunteer Alex Janke remarked while in the middle of a statistical analysis. “I wish I could do this every weekend.”

The sensation of using your skills and hobbies to help another person out is powerful, and it’s why I think the DataDive model is well-suited for media organizations. Similar to nonprofits, many media outlets operate based on a mission of public service. (If your organization is a nonprofit, you can be part of a DataDive in your area. Check out DataKind for more information.) A journalistic DataDive would give non-journos a peek behind masthead and give the news organization a chance to engage with the community.

Of course, watch out for challenges:

  • Be aware of potential culture clash. (See: Obama campaign vs. open-source coders) At the DataDive, we make all of our materials open to the public.
  • Provide volunteers with enough guidance on what you hope to accomplish with the data, but don’t stifle the creativity that makes this event so valuable.
  • Make sure everyone writes down how they’re doing what they’re doing while they’re doing it. You want to be able to replicate (or at least understand) what happened.
  • Finally, don’t run out of coffee!

What questions do you have about the DataDive? Leave a note in the comments.

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