Why journalists should hang out with hackers

First confesstion: I’m not very good with numbers and I don’t know how to program in Linux, so I’m naturally fearful of the super computer-savvy.

Second confession: my impression of a hacker had largely been shaped by a really mediocre 1990’s movie. Great soundtrack, but no way could I do what these folks were doing.

Fast forward 16 years and I’m a convert. Partnering with hackers is a natural fit: as more and more data is available to the public, there are stories to be told.

And despite the way they are portrayed by the media – yes, us – hackers are not in their basements dreaming up viruses to take over the world.

I’m part of a group that brought a Hacks/Hackers chapter to Ottawa, and I’m learning that when journalists and technology collide, amazing things happen.

At our first meetup in May I was surprised to hear from a hacker that he was just as thrilled to meet up with a group of hacks (not quite used to that title) as I was meeting him and hacker friends.

“What do you have to gain here?” I asked, “You can build apps, fusion tables, what do you get out of this?”

“Sure, I can build anything – but you know what stories people need to hear, and what they want to hear. You know the audience.”

Third confession: I was more than a little intimidated when I bumped into Kate Myers and Andy Carvin from NPR at a hackathon held at the Online News Association conference this September.

Kate is the Product Manager for Social Media Tools, and Andy is the Senior Strategist for NPR’s Social media desk.

Gleefully, these two told me they had more than 90,000 of Andy’s Tweets from the Arab Spring, and they were hoping to find something to do with them at this Hacks/Hackers event.

“Mind if I tag along and watch?” I asked. I was astounded that they had acquired an xml file of Tweets from Twitter.

Kate scoffed. “I hope you do more than that,” she said. “We’re not journalists. We need to figure out how to tell a story here. We’ve got a lot here, how do we tell the story of the Tweets?”

When we sat down in a larger group, I suggested one way to organize Tweets might be a simple timeline. Ross Perez from Tableau Public was also in our group, he suggested a timeline that shows spikes when activity peaks.

Working in a simple spreadsheet, I worked with Kate to cross-reference spikes in @andycarvin Tweets with major news events. Magic ensued.

Here’s how Ross worked his magic in Tableau:

It was beautiful, visual story telling.  Not the inverted pyramid I learned in Journalism school. It wasn’t the 25-words-or-less lead. But it told a story nonetheless.

December 3rd is International Open Data day. Should journalists take note – you bet.

Should we be intimidated? No way.

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