How journalists can use Ospriet to capture real-time conversations at conferences, events

While preparing for a SXSWi panel on design research earlier this year, I started thinking about how to engage the audience.

My fellow panelists and I wanted a way for the audience to participate in the discussion so we could keep the conversation lively and pointed. Given that so many conference attendees tweet about panels, we thought a Twitter-related tool would be the easiest way to facilitate the conversation.

We discussed how to build and implement such a tool, and after about two weeks of work, Ospriet was born. (Here’s more background on its conception and its name.) This open-source moderation tool that’s built on the Twitter API allows an audience to post and vote on questions or comments during a presentation. It’s similar to Google Moderator, but built on top of Twitter and intended for events. Read more


How journalists can use selectors to harness the power of CSS

Editor’s note: This How To assumes a basic understanding of HTML.

Along with HTML and JavaScript, CSS forms the foundation of the open Web. These three technologies power just about every website, and a basic understanding of each can go a long way toward preparing you to build and edit Web pages.

If HTML is about bringing meaning to content, CSS is about defining how our content looks — the layout and positioning of elements, the colors, the typography and other visual effects. HTML provides a skeletal structure, while CSS offers the outer shell.

CSS defines the appearance of just about every part of news or information website, including comment areas, forum pages and, of course, articles.

CSS and HTML work hand in hand. In fact, CSS is useless without an HTML document to graft on to. Read more


How journalists can use JSON to draw meaning from data

JSON stands for “JavaScript Object Notation,” which makes it sound like an esoteric bit of programming trivia that non-Web developers won’t ever have to deal with.

But JSON is neither esoteric, nor does it have to involve programming. It is just a data format that’s easy on the eyes for both humans and computers. This is one reason why it’s become one of the preferred data formats of choice for programmers and major Web applications.

JSON is just structured text, like CSV (comma-separated values) and XML. However, CSV typically is used to store spreadsheet-like data, with each line representing a row and each comma denoting a column. XML and JSON can describe data with nested information; for example, a list of users and the last 20 tweets belonging to each user. Read more


How journalists can use open APIs to improve election coverage

Election season is upon us. As the presidential candidates work to garner support and funds, journalists are trying to inform and educate voters on the issues and personalities at play in 2012.

Part of our job is to help people make sense of government data. Thankfully, with the help of APIs, data is increasingly accessible. In this piece, I’ve outlined some of the APIs that you can use to enhance your elections coverage and turn data into compelling pieces of journalism.

Putting congressional votes in context

Voters no doubt look to news organizations and watchdog groups to keep an eye on how their elected officials represent their interests. ProPublica has developed a simple application to show where local Congress members stand on SOPA and PIPA. Read more


How journalists can use Google Refine to clean ‘dirty’ data sets

The first attempt at a lead for this post, it turns out, was pretty much the same lead I wrote five years ago when reviewing a book about dirty data.

My lapse illustrates two things: First, that I have the memory of a goldfish and some bad habits to address. Second, that dirty data is a constant thorn in the sides of data journalists.

Luckily, we now have a tool to address it.

Google Refine bills itself as a “power tool for working with messy data,” and it does not disappoint. While not a turnkey solve-all for data integrity, it makes this tedious task far less intimidating. In this tutorial, we’ll cover how to install and a take advantage of one trick that will make your work easier. Read more


How journalists can use Flot to turn numbers into visual stories

From building apps to backgrounding stories, reporters work with numerical data in all kinds of ways. It’s a practice that will no doubt increase in the future as more data becomes available all the time.

But as anyone who’s tried to work numbers into a story knows, it’s difficult to convey the meaning of too many numbers to people without a visual. Even a simple line chart can help in a city budget story, for instance, while more in-depth subjects like school report cards and our nation’s budget require charts if they are to be understood.

Interactivity can be a huge boon for understanding (though it should only be used when necessary, as it can quickly create clutter). Both of those examples were created with a JavaScript library called Flot, which makes it easier to plot data on charts. Read more


How journalists can use Geocommons to create interactive maps

A few months ago, John Keefe wrote a Poynter.org How To about using shapefiles. The power of the shapefile, he wrote, is the ability to refer to regions instead of points.

But what if your data has points (for example, addresses), and you want to map regions? Let’s say, for example, you have addresses of environmental violations, and you want to show which congressional districts have the most violations. You need to find a way to associate those points into shapes. In this tutorial, I’ll explain how to do that.

Let’s use an example from the organization I work for, the Sunlight Foundation. We have a site called Transparency Data, where users can download data, some of which includes addresses. One such dataset is the EPA violations data. Read more


How journalists can use Excel to organize data for stories

Increasingly, reporters are turning to Microsoft Excel — or similar spreadsheet programs like Apple’s Numbers – to advance their reporting. They’re using spreadsheets to keep track of city budgets, baseball statistics, campaign finance and hospital data.

If you’re not already using spreadsheets, it’s tough to know where to start. In this piece, I’ll offer some guidance for journalists who want to use Excel but have little experience with it.

Simple formulas

Spreadsheet programs are set up as tables of cells, arranged in vertical columns (each assigned a letter) and horizontal rows (each assigned a number). The intersection of any column and row is a cell. So, column A and row 1 results in the cell A1.

One of the greatest benefits of a spreadsheet is the ability to combine cells to create new data. Read more


Tips & tools for journalists who want to learn programming skills

So you want to become a developer, journo-coder or hired geek and you’re wondering where to begin. Maybe you’ve coded a bit before and you’re wondering what languages to choose, or maybe you’ve never seen a piece of code and are starting from the beginning.

It can be overwhelming to think about all the programming, markup and data languages in the Web application world. So, let’s make it easier by breaking them up into front-end code, back-end code and data manipulation code.

Front-end code

The three primary languages that help build front-end design code are JavaScript, HTML and CSS. Here’s what they do:

  • JavaScript: A scripting language to manipulate data between the server and the Web page. It can also alter the page based on user or server communication.
Read more

How journalists can use Backbone to create data-driven projects

Single page apps are great solutions for data journalism. By offloading the complexity from backends and servers, journalists can build rich programs and graphics out of just Javascript, HTML and CSS. In fact, these “backends” can shrink to a vanishing point. We can use Twitter in place of a database. Or we can get even simpler and store (static) data in JS/JSON/XML files.

We can make news apps without having to touch a server or write any Ruby, Python or PHP. This is important. It allows data journalists to focus on developing their stories instead of configuring servers. The time and effort to launch an interactive application is reduced to the point where it becomes feasible for journalistic outlets of all sizes to make applications for both long-term pieces and breaking news. Read more

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