NICAR conference 2018 – the best tips and talks from the ‘Woodstock’ of data journalism

NICAR data journalism conference

It’s the world’s biggest and best gathering of ‘news nerds’ – the NICAR conference is an unmissable annual event for anyone who writes code or uses data for journalism and storytelling.

This year’s conference took place in Chicago and over 1250 people attended. There were talks and workshops for all levels and interests – from the basics on using spreadsheets, databases and online mapping, to data visualisation and the latest technological advances.

Though we weren’t there in person (😢), we’ve put together some of the best tips and interesting talks from this year’s conference – useful for professionals and students alike (🤓).

A Github guide for journalists – by Max Harlow, Newsroom Developer, FT

Put simply, Github is a website. And it’s used increasingly by newsrooms and individual journalists as a way to share code, data and tools. But for the uninitiated, it can be hard to get started on Github. This tutorial from the FT’s Max Harlow is a clear and simple introduction to Github, with plenty of examples of how the site is being used by newsrooms. You should also check out our Interhacktive intro to Github.

All Charts Lie, Some Lie More Than Others – a presentation by Alberto Cairo, University of Miami

Most data journalists are quick to evangelise about how visualisations and charts can help to communicate complex data. It’s less common to hear how sometimes data viz can be based purely on assumptions, or how it may oversimplify information instead of clarify. This presentation from Alberto Cairo serves as a useful reminder to think clearly about data and to take stock of what a chart or graphic is not showing. It’s also packed full of good (and bad) data viz practice within the field.

30 tools in 60 minutes – by Jeremy Caplan, CUNY J-School

This is a one-stop shop for every kind of digital journalism tool you could ever want. Jeremy Caplan has listed over 110 different apps, tools and platforms to help you to do everything from automatically transcribing interviews to seamlessly creating mobile charts, quizzes, or videos.

R tutorials

It seems that there were more R tutorials at NICAR this year than coffee breaks. R, an open-source statistical computing language, is now an essential part of a data journalist’s toolkit, and useful for scraping, querying, analysing and presenting data. Some of the useful sessions on R included an introduction to the R package ‘tidyverse’ by Hadley Wickham, one of the inventors of the language; data analysis and plotting with R by Peter Aldhous from Buzzfeed; and a workshop on how to find stories through R visualisations.

A guide to visidata – by Jeremy Singer-Vine, Data Editor, Buzzfeed News

VisiData is a free, open-source tool that lets you quickly open, explore, summarise, and analyse datasets in your computer’s terminal. Jeremy Singer-Vine put together this comprehensive guide to a nimble tool that seems well suited to the deadline-driven world of journalism.

Mining the social web – by Lam Thuy Vo, Reporter, Buzzfeed News

Social media is packed full of data and this guide from Buzzfeed’s Lam Thuy Vo means you will soon be mining Facebook and Twitter for stories. Download her github repository to get started straight away.

Lightning talks

As well as guides and tutorials, there were some super-fast lightning talks at NICAR that caught our attention. Matt Dempsey from the Houston Chronicle spoke about how more work needs to be done to open up career paths for data journalists, Justin Myers from AP drew an interesting comparison between copy editors and data journalists, and Sandhya Kambhampati and Tisha Thompson shared their tips to bulletproof a data driven story.

And even more…

These are just some of the many talks that featured at NICAR this year. For those looking for more, Chrys Wu has put together this comprehensive list of almost everything that was said and done at this edition of news nerd Woodstock.

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