Phillip Smith

Hey, I need your input on a "Crunching Public Data" course at Code Lesson

Crunching Public Data on Code Lesson.

I’ve often heard the saying “you know a subject well when you can teach it confidently.” So I’ve decided to put that to the test by stepping up to teach “Crunching Public Data” at Code Lesson this spring.

This is the first time that Code Lesson will be running this four-week online course, so the focus of the learning experience is really in my hands (and yours), and I’m excited to be able to package up some of “working with data” tricks I’ve learned over the last fifteen years of working with advocacy organizations and publishers, as well as some of the inspiration and ideas that have come from being involved with groups like Civic Access and the Electoral Data Consortium.

Over the next few weeks, I will be working on the course outline – starting to add more detail for each section – and drafting the first week of course material. This is where I really need your input: to help ensure that this course is valuable to people like you – people who might consider taking the course – I want to make sure that it incorporates ideas and tools that would interest you.

There are two things that I could use feedback on right away:

  • The target audience for the course: Who is it?
  • The title of the course: Does it speak to the audience?

Who are the people that might need this course to improve their storytelling?

My first thought is that the course will be prepared for folks who don’t have a lot of practical experience using software and programming to work with data: mostly journalists, researchers, and civic enthusiasts – that is my best guess. The course will focus on:

  • A) finding publicly available data relevant to your line of investigation,
  • B) exploring that data,
  • and C) publishing meaningful representations of that data.

I’ve been asked to focus in a generic sense on and similar providers, but I’m hoping that participants will work with datasets that are local to them, e.g., data that is available in their city, town, or region, or a specific area of thematic interest.

Depending on the level of technical experience that participants come to the course with, I would like to spend a fair bit of time introducing a small set of freely available tools for the exploration and publishing of data, and will ask participants to work on a project that will demonstrate their understanding of one or more of the techniques or tools introduced throughout the course.

A basic familiarity of Python is currently listed as a prerequisite on the Code Lesson site, but my sense is that the course will keep the programming-related tasks very, very light; for example, Python might be introduced in the context of using CSVkit to quickly investigate a large dataset, or using ScraperWiki to obtain some data that isn’t readily available.

So my question for you is: Who are the people that might need this kind of a course, and what specifically would they be hoping to learn? Are there aspects of “telling stories with data,” or “finding and understanding data,” that would be critical to include – even at a conceptual level – in this course?

I’m keen to hear from people who’ve been thinking about this a lot (I know there are lots of you out there!), and from those people who might actually take a course like this if it delivered practical skills that could be used every day.

Crunching public data? What does it mean?

The venerable quasi-sage guru of personal branding, Kris Krug, offered: “The title might need some help. Google has some good language around empowering new journalistic practices through programming and data. I’d read up on their scholarship and grants and morph the language a bit.” The scholarships that Kris refers to are the “The AP-Google Journalism & Technology Scholarship

I agree that the title needs some work, and I had initially proposed “Crunching Public Data: Finding, exploring, and visualizing data to tell better stories.” However, perhaps that title doesn’t quite hit the mark either in terms of being accessible to people that might be looking for a course like this.

The question here is: In the context of finding, exploring, and presenting the stories that can be found in “data,” does the term “crunching” add anything of value? Straight up: Do you have a suggestion for a title that would have more resonance with your friends and colleagues that might be interested in a course like this?

Open Journalism, Open Web, Open Learning

Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to think about, develop, and deliver online curriculum at the nexus of journalism, software, and the open Web.

The first pilot course was the result of a mini-grant from the Knight Foundation to Hacks/Hackers and Mozilla that brought together forty participants – twenty working journalists, and twenty professional software developers – for a six week online, peer-to-peer, learning experience.

This past summer, as part of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, I ran what came to be known as the MozNewsLab, which took sixty participants through an intense four-week lecture-based program that aimed to introduce new thinking from luminaries of the journalism and software worlds.

I’m keen to keep working on the challenge of delivering practical skills to those individuals that are working to keep our communities knowable and our governments transparent and accountable, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to translate the learnings from running relatively large online courses into a learning experience that and is more intimate and hands-on.

In addition to the four-week version of this course at Code Lesson, I’ll also be delivering a two-day workshop version of the material in Vancouver in May or June (details to follow).

So, shoot me a note via Twitter, Linkedin, e-mail, or via the comments here if you have any thoughts on the audience for this course, and – given the audience – an appropriate name.

Many thanks in advance! :)


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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