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NICAR 2018

Chicago, Ill. March 8-11, 2018

Here are the sessions I went to at NICAR 2018. Each session title links to more detailed notes, including links to tipsheets and the session description on (Pro tip: If you're an IRE member, the audio links will be posted on the sessions' pages at IRE several weeks after the conference).

Also see the end of this list for more resources.


How and why to make your data analysis reproducible

Ryann Grochowski Jones, Hannah Recht, Jeremy Singer-Vine, Hannah Cushman

I learned how making your data analysis pipeline a reproducible thing can save you. Reproducibility doesn't necessarily mean automated. And how do deal with those pesky steps you have to do by hand.

Education civil rights data: The good, the bad, the dirty (Diversity Track)

Jennifer LaFleur, Alex Harwin, Kameel Stanley

My colleague Kameel Stanley along with Alex Harwin and Jennifer LaFleur talked about what kinds of education civil rights data exist, how to get them and some pitfalls. Kameel talked about a project I helped with where we discovered very high disparities in suspensions of students in Kindergarten through 3rd grade.

Conversation: Learn from my fail

Saurabh Datar, Brent Jones, Maggie Lee

No link here, because I helped lead this one along with Maggie Lee and Saurabh Datar. This well-attended conversation was about how we all fail and what we learn from it. Having the first few tales of fails come from the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post made it clear that this really does happen to everyone and the important thing is what we can learn.

Building happy cross-functional teams

Becca Aaronson, Joe Germuska, Emily Ingram

A follow-on from the previous therapy session, this one focused on the people around us. We heard about how newsrooms are integrating data desks into their workflow and moving away from the service-desk mentality, as well as how to split up work, what to look for in a manager and how to deal with less-technical people.

Investigating hate when the data isn’t there (Diversity Track)

Duaa Eldeib, Melissa Lewis, Ken Schwencke, Nadine Sebai

I learned about the ProPublica Documenting Hate database, and a few projects that it helped power. Also why hate crime data in the U.S. is terrible, and tips for interviewing people who have experienced bias crimes.

Conversation: More bibles, fewer priests: Tools for running self-managing teams

Brian Boyer

Brian Boyer, as usual, facilitated a fantastic discussion about team management and how teams can better manage themselves. We learned about "roles, goals and rules" for better management.


How to find reporting leads and publishable facts in text data you already have

Jeff Ernsthausen, Jeremy Merrill, Youyou Zhou

I learned how to take piles of text data and find patterns across documents, outliers and extract meaning from them. As well as how to find some data in the first place, bulletproof your analysis and present text data.

Evolving forms and the future of live coverage

Hamilton Boardman, Alastair Coote, Tiff Fehr, Tyler Fisher

The panel explored current ways of doing live coverage, and then looked at a few experimental forms and their positives and negatives.

Data journalism that breaks the filter bubble

Eva Constantaras, Adriana Gallardo, Anjeanette Damon

Through three case studies, we learned how to tell stories of marginalized or not-often-talked-about groups. We heard about the Lost Mothers series, about maternal harm and deaths in the U.S.; Death Behind Bars, about prisoners dying in jail; and how to do data journalism in developing countries.

Life after FactFinder

Ronald Campbell, Paul Overberg, Ally Burleson-Gibson

An employee of the U.S. Census, Ally Burleson-Gibson, went into the belly of the beast and faced down a roomful of reporters to demo the soon-to-come updates to American FactFinder, the tool to access Census data online.

Tips for harnessing new IRS nonprofit data

Andrea Fuller, Todd Wallack

Unfortunately I had to leave this one early (I hadn't seen my wife and kid since leaving for Chicago and they had time to FaceTime), but what I did get to hear of it was great. I've looked at this data before but it seemed inscrutable. Andrea and Todd explained the format and gave some tips for using it.

Lightning Talks

Lightning talks are a series of five-minute talks given to the entire conference (i.e. there's nothing else scheduled during this time). This year we heard about

  • Sensor journalism when the EPA is cutting back — Kelly Calagna
  • Why non-US data sources look terrible in text processors — Jonathan Soma
  • Why good copy editors make good data journalists — Justin Myers
  • Why news nerds need more career paths in newsrooms — Matt Dempsey
  • Challenges facing immigrants working in the news industry — Kai Teoh
  • How a bunch of News Nerds helped the L.A. Times form a union — Jon Schleuss and Anthony Pesce
  • What happens when the unexpected happens in the middle of your story — Allie Kanik and Kate Howard
  • How the Washington Post built its eclipse map with rubber bands — Denise Lu
  • Why alcohol and journalism don't have to go together — Rachel Alexander
  • What building a dining room table can teach you about data journalism — Steven Rich


Introducing the L.A. Times Map Maker: Make maps faster

Jon Schleuss

Jon Schleuss demoed the open-source map maker from the LA Times. I've been looking for a good self-service mapmaking tool that's a bit more flexible than the one we currently use, and this one may be it.

Data of disasters: Following the money

Lee Zurik, Matt Dempsey, Omaya Sosa

Matt Dempsey gave an overview of types of disasters and some of the data that might be useful for each. Lee Zurik gave tips on following the money after a disaster, including one parish in Louisiana that was spending a ridiculous amount of money to rebuild schools. And Omaya Sosa talked about what it was like to do important, impactful journalism in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Uncovering environmental hazards faced by urban children

Chris Zubak-Skees, Molly Peterson, Dylan Purcell

I learned about three projects to uncover environmental hazards faced by kids, particularly in cities: Schools near busy roads (air pollution), urban heat, and a project that looked at lead paint and tainted soil in Philadelphia.

Shoot us straight: Correctly using data and docs on guns

Nick Penzenstadler, Matt Drange, Kim Smith

I learned about data on guns, including the Chicago Crime Lab's work, how to get Shotspotter data, what data is and isn't available about gun dealers, and how to build your own dataset about online gun sales.

I'm entitled to a spreadsheet, dang it!

Steven Rich, Sarah Ryley, Annie Waldman

This was a fun session about getting data from public agencies in formats we can use, including how to format records requests, what data is and isn't available because of HIPAA and FERPA, and how to manage large FOIA projects.

Creating a data culture that lasts

Annie Daniel, Tom Meagher, Mark Nichols

In yet another therapy session, we talked about how to better integrate ourselves in the newsroom, get support for what we do and fight…for the right…to byyyyyyylines (sorry).


Sensor journalism: How do we do it and what are the limits?

Michael Corey, Marianne Bouchart, Denise Lu, Kelly Calagna

We learned about different types of sensor data that are available or in the works, a project called SensorGrid that's trying to democratize the collection of data, using sensor journalism to catch crooks, and using map imagery.

Python: Writing tests for your code

Andrew Chavez

I learned about unit testing in Python. I've read about it before but not really been sure how to go about it. Now I know how to start.

Archiving data journalism

Katherine Boss, Meredith Broussard, Nora Paul, Ben Welsh

Finally, a panel that began with Ben Welsh saying "This is going to be a dark panel," and included Meredith Broussard later saying, "Death comes to all of us." This was about why we're terrible at archiving data journalism and ways we might be better at it.

More resources

NICAR Schedule (see all the sessions)

Conference Blog

IRE's repository of tipsheets and slides

Chrys Wu's repository of tipseets, slides, tools, etc.


Notes from the sessions I attended at NICAR 2018 in Chicago, Ill.



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