Breaking down the language barrier between developers and journalists

By Caty Arevalo, Aleszu Bajak, and Matt Carroll

It ended with dramatic, insightful presentations on video gaming and addiction, possible gender disparities in Medicare payments, and how drug cartels might hinder shale oil exploration in Mexico.

The middle was a rush of frantic coding, reporting, and research, fueled with a stream of coffee, soda, pizza and donuts.

And at the beginning were more than 20 journalists, developers, and others interested in breaking down the cultural barriers that can cause communication problems between reporters and coders.

It was a one-day hackathon at the Media Lab on Sunday, May 18, with the long but descriptive title of, “Breaking down the language barrier between developers and journalists.” (Hashtag: #Digitalfluency.)

The group was given the job of breaking into small teams of developers and reporters and creating from scratch a data project that could be shown at the end of the day — it could be an interactive chart, research, or something else. They would each include a short text explainer. Six projects were created.

The hackathon grew out of Civic Media Lab Director Ethan Zuckerman’s class Future of News and Participatory Media.

It was sponsored by the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media and Hacks/Hackers Boston.

Participants talked about a number of problems they faced and some of the solutions they found:

  • Finding the data and putting the data into a format that you can work with could be an issue.
  • Cleaning the data was difficult. “90 percent of the work was cleaning the data; 10 percent was the visualization,” said one person.
  • “Working with public datasets could be headache.” An exception was the City of Boston data, which, according to Sam Gassel, was great.
  • A key for journalists was figuring out the right questions to ask, and then finding the story they wanted to tell. “It is important to spend time thinking how to use the data.”
  • Even if you cannot develop the visualization idea you had at the beginning, you have to keep going because you can still do something.

Here are the projects and authors:

CAROL MORTON, STEPHEN SUEN
Clinical trial publishing rates in multiple sclerosis
Python scraping script
Final visualization

SAM GASSEL, ALLEN GOODMAN, MARINA
Boston Restaurant Health Inspections

ROCHELLE SHARP, TINKER READY, MAGGIE MULVIHILL
Possible gender differences in new Medicare data.

BILL WENDEL, KRISTIE O’REILLY
Mapped 862 real estate transactions in Boston/Cambridge/Somerville from last 6 weeks.
More than 25 percent of properties sold within a week. The group feels this adds context to what publications like the Boston Globe are reporting about real estate sales. About 22 percent showed inhouse conflict of interest transactions, according to the authors.

ADAM LAUGHLIN, DAVID HADDAD, BETSY O’DONOVAN
Video games and addiction
Working with data about dopamine and add to story on video games. Using WordPress, jQueryUI and jQuery plugins, the graph is rendered with progress bars. The Ken wordpress template.
http://www.publiseek.com/new/video-games

SANDRA RODRIGUEZ, WILL KNIGHT, ADRIANA ORTEGA, ANDREW VITVITSKY
Choropleth map superimposing homicides in Mexican states with shale gas reserves. Map here.

The hackathon was organized and run by Spanish environmental journalist and Knight Science fellow Caty Arevalo, science journalist and Knight Science fellow Aleszu Bajak and Matt Carroll, a research scientist at the Center for Civic Media and the Boston organizer for Hacks/Hackers.