Nicar 2013 Conference

On February 27 – March 2, I attended NICAR 2013 in Louisville, Kentucky. My attendance was generously funded through a Temple University Center for Public Interest Journalism sponsorship.

What is NICAR?

NICAR is the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, a program of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. and the Missouri School of Journalism. In the institute’s own words, “NICAR has trained thousands of journalists in the practical skills of finding, prying loose and analyzing electronic information.” Data discovery, data analysis, and news applications such as interactive maps and info-graphics offer common examples of the “CAR” in “NICAR.” Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog and its suite of analyses, maps, graphics, and interactive applications is another popular example. In the world of of quality public interest news — and the mission of helping people better understand its quantitative nuance — CAR boasts a potent mix of computer science, design, and journalism. Within this field, NICAR is the flagship conference.

Who attends the NICAR conference?

This year’s attendees included investigative reporters, news graphics editors, interactive news teams, programmers, political scientists, and civic technologists. Organizations like NPR, Propublica, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, and the Huffington Post were represented. Philadelphia attendees included folks from the University of Pennsylvania, AxisPhilly, Philadelphia City Paper, The Inquierer, and Mozilla.

Session notes

As is evidenced by the schedule, a range of speakers addressed a diversity of topics.

A few personal takeaways:

Al Shaw of Propublica did a great job teaching journalists how to leverage Ruby in the newsroom. He also demonstrated some fun web scraping techniques, utilizing both Ruby and Node.js to retrieve political campaign donor data from the Federal Election Commission website. His slides are online: Intro to Ruby and Web scraping with Node.

Tasneem Raja offered insight on news applications at Mother Jones and how her team uses Google Spreadsheets and Tabletop.js as an easy-to-edit back-end for many of their interactive features. See my overview and tutorial for a demo of the technique.

NPR’s Jeremy Bowers and the New York Times’ Jacqui Maher spoke about serving high traffic, scalable web applications. Per Jeremy Bowers: why serve dynamic pages when your application is largely static? Instead of relying on application servers, Jeremy and the NPR apps team deploy static, JavaScript-driven applications to Amazon S3. Jacqui reflected on her team’s challenges during the 2012 presidential election, relaying anecdotes and advice on CloudFront, Capistrano, alerts, and melting load balancers.

The New York Times’ Jacob Harris, the Chicago Tribune’s Heather Billings, and Propublica’s Al Shaw lead “Infect the CMS,” a panel about the challenges and shortcomings of content management systems in developing news applications. The conclusion: no CMS is perfect. APIs, JSON flat files, Google Drive, and tasks to sanitize Microsoft Office documents help. Cross-team communication and skill-sharing is also critical.

Friday’s fast-paced Lightning Talks were a crowd-pleaser. A few highlights: Propublica’s Jeff Larson spoke on algorithm design. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Matt Weite argued the reporting potential of hardware hacks and demonstrated a tool he wired up to record the TSA’s handling of his luggage. Katie Park offered good tips in showing big data on small screens. The New York Times’ Jacob Harris bemoaned the squirrelly state-by-state data handling and business logic that’s necessary in developing elections applications. Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times delivered an energetic, standup-comedy-reminiscent rant in which he challenged journalists to think more like developers and challenged developers to answer their phones. He titled the talk “Django Retrained: Five ways coding like a Web developer can make you a better investigative reporter.”

Other talks and workshops covered topics like R, building interactive maps, interacting with Census data, JavaScript best practices, Python, Django, data visualization, SQL, machine learning, statistics, and Fusion Tables.

Personal highlights

The conference also provided the opportunity to further develop some Philly relationships. Discussing John Duchneskie‘s experience starting at The Inquirer a week after the 1985 MOVE bombing was priceless. Learning more about from Penn’s Chris Brown, chatting about West Philly with City Paper’s Ryan Briggs, and meeting this year’s Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellows through Erica Owens were other highlights. I also spent a lot of time talking shop with my buddies Casey Thomas and Pam Selle from AxisPhilly.


Great conference, inspiring field — much gratitude to Temple’s Center for Public Interest Journalism for sending me. NICAR 2014 is in Baltimore; I expect more representation from Philly locals.