Phillip Smith

Data Boot Camp B.C.

Two-days, ten compelling, B.C.-focused data stories

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A few short months after teaming up to develop a two-day data boot camp workshop for investigative reporters in Venezuela, Hugh Stimson and I were able to bring the essence of the data mapping & visual storytelling boot camp to Vancouver, B.C., on June 7 & 8th.

Unlike the aftermath of our workshops in Venezuela, there are no riots (as of yet) breaking out in the streets of downtown Vancouver. The results may have been less incendiary, but they were no less impressive. By the end of the two-day workshop at Langara College, more than 10 B.C. stories were presented using maps & visualizations.

Canada’s data gold mind

There were not too many differences between the workshops delivered in Venezuela and the recent workshop in Vancouver. The format was quite similar, however the Vancouver version was condensed – 12 hours vs. 16. The number of participants was roughly the same. Hugh and I updated our lessons and swapped a few responsibilities, but the material covered was roughly identical between the workshops.

One of the big differences, however, was data. All of the participants in Vancouver arrived with data, and lots of it. Census data, housing data, corrections data, library-lending data – you name it! – loads and loads of data. It was immediately apparent that Canadians have access to not only great data published by the government and government agencies, but that many private institutions our participants were connected to also published or provided data.

Even still, Canada has a long, long way to go on the open data front. Only 53 municipalities in Canada have open data catalogues (out of more than 4000 cities, towns, etc.) and some provinces are still missing from the list. However, it’s a data gold mine when compared to many other countries and that was evident during the workshop in Vancouver.

As usual, Hugh and I compiled a resource list of starting points that data-hungry folks in B.C. can use and grow.

The boot camp format

What really works well? In my experience, it’s small class sizes, lots of time for working one-on-one with participants (not easy unless you have two instructors), and providing ample room in the schedule for people to actually work on their projects. Hugh and I have tried to achieve this with a schedule that staggers sessions – teaching, then time to apply those ideas – throughout the two days.

I firmly believe that having a looming deadline of presenting a project at the end of day two provides a lot of incentive to focus on building a “minimum viable product,” and on finding that one story to focus on. However, we received some feedback this time that makes me wonder about the presentations – perhaps they could be an optional part of the workshop and happen during the more social time at the end of day two.

What’s challenging? Finding the right balance between presenting concepts (like digging for data, or explaining what makes a good data story), demonstrating practical examples (software walkthroughs), and leaving participants with enough time to work on their projects. Too much teaching, and it’s a seminar. Too little teaching, and it’s a hands-on lab. It’s a complex equation to nail perfectly and depends a lot on class size, the length of the class, and the aspirations of the participants.

The most consistent feedback we received this time was: Too short!


Here’s what participants tackled in their final presentations:

  • Rental Housing in B.C.: mapping the percent of rental households, average rent, and rent as a percent of income (CartoDB)

  • Rare plants in the oil sands: exploring how exploration is impacting the status of plants previously considered rare (QGIS & Google Sheets).

  • Homeless shelters in metro Vancouver: investigating if Vancouver’s shelters are located where they are needed (CartoDB)

  • Where do students come from: looking at the source of students’ journeys to B.C. for higher education (Tableau Public)

  • National Security Letters & preemptive action: do preventative arrests deter crime? (Google Sheets)

  • Population change: what’s the impact of SkyTrain locations on population growth (CartoDB)

  • Physical activity in schools: does policy influence action? (Tableau Public)

  • Where do campaign supporters come from: mapping the network of support for various B.C. campaigns (Google Sheets, Google Fusion Tables, CartoDB)

  • Canadian Corrections: Remand vs. sentenced criminal case comparison (Tableau Public)

Bring data boot camp to your home town

I’m interested in refining the format of this workshop until it’s just the right mix of teaching and hands-on hacking. That refinement takes time and experimentation, however, so opportunities to continue developing the format are the key to improving it over time.

If you think that a data boot camp would be a good fit with your community, please drop me an e-mail, leave a comment below, or shoot me a quick note on Twitter.


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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