Lessons from the ProPublica Data Institute

So…I completely whiffed on my stated intent to keep this blog updated regularly. Sorry about that!

But I promise I have some good excuses for going silent. For one, I’ve been working to regain physical strength and stamina after dealing with anemia and a recurring back issue that’s made it difficult at times for me to walk. The other excuse is, fortunately, a lot more upbeat: as I wrote earlier, I was one of 12 chosen from some 500 applicants to the ProPublica Data Institute. The Data Institute wrapped up last Wednesday, and wow, did I learn a lot from it!

For starters, I knew very little about working with data. I definitely didn’t know about all the superpowers of Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel. Now, my next step is to devise ways of incorporating more data into my reporting. That’s a bit tricky when it comes to private companies, which are the bulk of my journalistic focus. But at Technical.ly Brooklyn, I also write about tech initiatives forged by the city government, which is likely where I’ll start. As part of my final presentation for the Data Institute, I made a chart showing the share of participatory budget funds going to tech projects in Brooklyn. You can check it out below as well as at this link.

The second, and longest, section of the Data Institute focused on coding and design. I had some background in HTML and CSS from classes I had taken through Girl Develop It (which enabled me to customize this very site), so the lessons on those were mainly refreshers for me. The design principles we learned during the Data Institute I found very helpful: I hadn’t considered, for instance, the importance of considering colorblindness in picking a color palette. And it was wonderful to learn JavaScript in a way that made sense and felt applicable to my work. For one assigned exercise, I made a simple interactive photo that uses JavaScript to toggle between “before” and “after” images of the design makerspace A/D/O in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

(I also contributed to this tribute page a few of us put together of some of the most memorable quotes from our time at the Data Institute. It’s rudimentary, for sure — we definitely didn’t optimize for mobile! — but it was a fun way to acknowledge the awesome teachers and speakers we had during our two weeks there.)

Not quite ready for the pros, but maybe one day!

Speaking of optimizing for mobile…man, oh, man, does building a website from scratch require some serious tweaking! Our final project involved creating a portfolio website to showcase our journalistic (and personal, if we chose) work. We used GitHub Pages to host our sites. I knew the site I ended up building needed some work to look good on mobile devices and laptops with smaller screens. (We didn’t go over responsive design formally.) I’ve since made some tweaks so that it looks fine when the browser window isn’t fully maximized on my laptop, but it’s still quite a way off from being fully responsive. So that’s something I’ll continue to work on.

The final part of the Data Institute focused on web scraping, which was something I’d heard about but didn’t know what it involved in practice. What it involved was getting a crash course in Python! Surprisingly, the little bit of knowledge I retained from Codecademy exercises in JavaScript proved to be helpful, since from them, I learned about concepts like variables, loops, and functions. That said, in no way would I have been ready to write my own program from scratch. I still don’t feel very ready, but the simple web scraper we wrote together at least gave me a template for things to do on my own. We also got a talk on the ethics of scraping, which I found quite insightful. (In a nutshell: if you can get data without scraping, do that, and don’t write a scraper that runs so quickly that it brings the entire site down.)

In fun asides, I also dusted off my basic InDesign skills and got a tutorial on how to make a GIF in Photoshop (which I’m sure will come in handy for future Technical.ly Brooklyn posts!). The Data Institute also provided an occasion for me to update my resume (as part of our design unit), so if you could ever use my services, please do reach out!

The opening slide from the deck that I made for my presentation. (Click to see the whole deck!) It mysteriously didn’t work when I was presenting, though. Bummer.

(Featured image credit: Photos by Mike Tigas/ProPublica; GIF by Lena Groeger/ProPublica)