To learn more about data journalism …

If you liked what we did in the past two weeks, here are some things to consider:

You could learn Python. Yeah, actually learn it. Here’s how.

When you read Yau’s chapter 8, you probably noticed he gave you three different examples. The first one used R, a programming environment that’s good for making statistical graphics. The second example used Python (yay! You have that!). The third example used Flash, in a particularly horrible way.

If you want to learn more about this stuff, you can’t try to learn three things at the same time.

But you can learn them one at a time. You could do the Python stuff in Yau’s chapter 8. You can try it. You can make it work.

A lot of people get all discouraged about data journalism before they even get started. That’s where you are right now: You haven’t started yet. So you could choose to just give up and not learn anything else about it.

Or you could be like every person who has learned this stuff, and pick one thing to start with.

I’m suggesting that you choose either Python and scraping, or Google Fusion Tables. You’ll use Excel with either one, most likely.

Small projects

How do people learn these things? Most of them get a little jump-start, something like what you have done in this class — and then the rest is all on your own. You try little, manageable projects, one at a time. You hammer away on a project until you master it. If you get stuck, you go on forums and Google and search for answers. You work on it until you get it. Then you move on to the next little project.

This is one reason why I like Yau’s book. He has a lot of different little projects in there, using different tools, producing different-looking graphics, and getting data from all kinds of sources. You could go through his book and find every Python example, and work on each one until you beat it. That would be one way to learn.

Spend the time

I’ve learned a lot of things this way, but the hardest one was Adobe Flash. I used dozens of different websites and books, but I didn’t take any classes. (I did go to one workshop taught by some news graphics guys.) I still have hundreds of folders on my hard drive filled with files named collisiontest1.fla, collisiontest2.fla, collisiontest3.fla — you try a lot of times until you get it to work, and then you move on to the next bit you want to learn.

Sometimes people get hung up on what to learn. You’re afraid to learn Python because you don’t know if you’ll need to scrape pages. You’re afraid to learn JavaScript because you think you might need to scrape pages. You’re afraid of wasting time.

It’s not wasted. If you invest the time to really learn one of these languages or frameworks, you’ll find that the next one (when the time comes to learn the next one) is about 100 times easier. That’s the really big payoff of getting through your first programming language.

Can we give journalism students enough of an understanding of content architecture and product design to think creatively about content architecture and product design? Can we give them enough of an understanding of the relevant technology and tools to continue to readily adapt to tomorrow’s technology and tools? At a journalism conference a year or so ago I heard a journalism professor bemoan the fact they taught students Flash only to have it fade from use. Really? Every one of those students learned valuable and transferable skills. Authoring tools change. Understanding of programming concepts and models persists and evolves.

— Richard Gingras, head of news and social products at Google, speaking at the annual AEJMC conference, August 9, 2012

That’s exactly how I feel about Flash — not that I wasted anything, but that I acquired such valuable skills in the process. I learned so many things about programming while I was learning to use ActionScript to make interactive stuff.

While I’m learning Python (from the link at the top of this post), I’m remembering that almost every day, with every exercise.


About Mindy McAdams
I teach courses about digital journalism at the University of Florida. I love to travel. I ride a Vespa. You can find me on Twitter (@macloo).

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