Phillip Smith

Quick report back from @TheTyee's "Telling stories with data" Master Class workshop


The last few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind, as I made my way from Oaxaca to New York, then on to Vancouver, and back across the continent to Toronto. Lots to share, so I wanted to start with a quick recap of the first Tyee Master Class on Telling stories with data held on June 2nd and 3rd in The Tyee’s newsroom in Vancouver, British Columbia.

When the folks at The Tyee asked if I would be interested in putting together this workshop, I was in the midst of developing a similar training program for the online learning site Code Lesson. The online version of the material would be delivered over a four week period and would be mainly self-directed learning. I was hoping to build on the momentum, successes and learnings from two technology-meets-journalism online learning initiatives that I had recently produced, Open Journalism on the Open Web and MozNewsLab.

The idea of doing a two-day hands-on workshop was both incredibly exciting and anxiety making at the same time. The workshop would be a pilot – like the other six master classes that The Tyee produced, a first – and, though I’ve run many workshops over the years, I really didn’t know if I would hit the goal of having the workshop participants produce presentable projects by the end of the weekend. (I also didn’t know that the workshop would be one of the first to sell out – more than a month ahead of the actual workshop. Clearly, there’s a demand.)

The rough idea when I started developing the workshop was that I would lead sixteen participants from concept to completed project in two days. To have any chance of achieving this, I needed to keep the tools simple, and the “talking head” time to a minimum. I also used a “learn than apply” model by doing a short presentation, usually followed by a walk through, followed by time for the participants to apply the lesson to their project idea.

About a week before the workshop, I kicked things off by subscribing participants to a Google Group and asking them to make time to watch a presentation on data visualization by Amanda Cox of the New York Times Graphics Desk. Shortly before the workshop, I set-up a number of shared Google Docs where participants could document their ideas, questions, and favourite resources. By the time the weekend was upon us, each of the Google Docs was evolving into a valuable post-workshop resource.

The morning of day one started with a break out session to get participants brainstorming possible project ideas. Shortly before lunch, I asked participants to commit to a project idea for the weekend, which they could either work on individually or as a group. Before lunch, we had four teams and two individuals all underway on interesting data-story projects.

The presentations that I gave throughout the weekend were focused and short:

  • The who, what, when, where, why, and how of telling stories with data
  • Data: What is it? It is all the same? Where to find it, with a quick review of relevant data opportunities for the weekend
  • Data exploration approaches, with a walk through of Google Refine
  • Common data problems and solutions, with walk through of extracting tables from PDFs
  • Visualization strategies, with demonstrations of how to make charts with Google Spreadsheets, merging map data with Fusion Tables, and creating a quick time line with Balance Media’s vertical time line tool

Hopefully, I presented for less than five hours in total (that was the idea, anyway), leaving almost five hours for participants to come up with a story idea, source their data, investigate if the data was going to work for the story, work through any problems along the way, and whip their data story into shape for a presentation to the group at 3PM on Sunday over a glass of wine.

Saying that I was impressed with the outcomes of the workshop would be an understatement. I think I got incredibly lucky with this group of participants. The lightning presentations at the end of the weekend were outstanding. Roughly, they were:

  • Exploring how different industries in British Columbia contributed to greenhouse gas emissions in relation to their contribution to the BC economy
  • Looking at the relationship between daily bike traffic volume (via bicycle counters that are spread around Vancouver) and historical weather data for the same period
  • Comparing and contrasting the amounts of “news hits” that a story like Kony 2012 garners in Canadian mainstream media vs. an ongoing humanitarian issue like malaria.
  • Investigating emergency calls to Single Resident Occupancy buildings (SROs) in Vancouver in the context of charitable food programs to try to shed light on the impact of meal provision in these communities
  • Researching the impact of education on poverty in the context of government spending cuts, and looking at how education and income are spread across different cultural communities in BC.
  • Mapping the trends in the Metro Vancouver “homeless count” from 2002 to 2011

Not bad for five hours of training and five hours of heads-down work!

I’m grateful for the investment that these participants made – the time, their attention, and their pocketbook – and the energy and fearlessness that each of them brought to the workshop. The outcomes and feedback are better than I could have ever expected.

Also, I owe a huge thanks to The Tyee for taking a risk in producing these master class workshops. Extra thanks goes to Julie Jenkins for taking care of every possible detail, and to Geoff D’Auria for being my tech-savvy volunteer for the weekend.

Drop me a line in the comments or on the Twitters if you’d like to be notified of future workshops like this.


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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