How I Learned to NICAR

Navigating a data and code conference for the first time

(John Henderson)

This year, we asked four people who had never attended NICAR before—or were attending in a new capacity this year—to write up what they learned and experienced. —eds.

Full disclosure: I went to NICAR because my parents invited me on a Mediterranean vacation. The trip would overlap with the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference (IRE) in June—which regularly draws hundreds of journalists, mostly reporters like me.

That event is usually the most valuable resource in my professional life, but I couldn’t pass up a rare stretch of Parental Quality Time. So with the IRE conference off the table, I checked the date for IRE’s other annual event. NICAR sounded like the smart-kid version of IRE, focused on data journalism and programming. I was hesitant about going. I know no code. I do not speak Java or C++.

I’m a reporter. Digging up information, piecing it together and making sense of it is my jam. I’ve never turned down an offer to dive into a box of dusty documents. But (perhaps you’ve heard) times are changing. While a box of docs could yield revelations, the gems you seek may well be hiding in the county procurement database.

My data skills go as far as a middling grasp of Excel can take me. It’s frustrating, to say the least, when the limits of my technical skills interfere with my reporting. I’m a freelancer. Here at Hussey HQ, there is no IT department and no colleague to ask which tool is best or where to look for a key document. It’s up to me to keep my skills sharp.

So I braced myself to be the dumbest person in every room and booked a flight to NICAR.

Welcome, Reporter

At times, even just reading the session descriptions, I felt like an exchange student: Our focus today will be learning how to run SQL-like analysis in R using the dplyr package, and making some simple charts using ggplot2.

I did not attend that session.

Other times, the territory felt familiar. While I occasionally overheard people debating the merits of Python over Ruby after hours, more often the conversations revolved around journalism, families, sports, and great stories. If it ever was, NICAR is no longer just for programmers. The new and clueless among us are welcomed from the first morning, with a session called "What the Hell is R? And all the other questions you’re afraid to ask."

I decided the conference sessions I picked had to meet at least one of three criteria: a) comprehensible to me; b) useful in my everyday reporting; or c) focused on a new skill I could learn to solve my most vexing challenges.

I had plenty of choices, from basic data-scraping and new ideas for City Hall dataset requests to hands-on classes with Excel and OpenRefine, and a rundown of ways to make sense of data without knowing how to write code.

Back Home, Back to Work

I came home with new tools on my phone and my computer. I discovered the command line— it was right there on my laptop all along!—and although I’m still not entirely sure what to do with it, I’ve poked around under the hood a few times.

By the end of any conference, my head is always spinning.

NICAR kicked the head-spin factor up a notch or two, but the thing is, journalism is journalism. People swapped FOIA tips and horror stories, freelancers strategized ways to get access to LexisNexis on the cheap, and everyone was driven by fundamental curiosity and a desire to figure out what’s really going on in the world. Listening to good journalists explain how they found and reported a story is always instructive.

I left NICAR with ideas for using data to strengthen my stories; a grasp of the myriad ways I can completely screw it up if I’m not careful; and a renewed respect for the care journalists take to get it right.

I still don’t know how to write a script that will crawl websites while I sleep, scraping data for a project that will leave the Pulitzer committee breathless. But I can use a Chrome extension to pull data from a website into a spreadsheet like a boss.

It’s a start.


  • Kristin Hussey

    Kristin Hussey is a freelance reporter in Connecticut, and a fellow at the McGraw Center for Business Journalism in New York. Since 2007, she has reported on corruption, philanthropy, guns, politics, poverty, pizza and prom dresses for The New York Times.


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