My First NICAR

NICAR conference banner image

Conference skeptics argue you can save money and learn more by staying at home. I have to admit some conferences I've attended mostly consisted of panelists showing off their latest stuff, glossing over warts, and basically trying to impress rather than share. Others have been important venues for collaborating around challenges, ideas, and solutions, and served a key role in building important relationships and communities.

So there I was in Denver attending my first NICAR conference, not knowing what to expect.

NICAR is a Big Conference

The first thing that struck me was how big NICAR has become - more than 1200 registered attendees - and how many sessions are concurrently scheduled. The NICAR Guidebook app showed which sessions were discussion-oriented, which were hands-on technical, and what level of knowledge was expected. But there were a dozen interesting sessions every hour. To be sure, hard to pick.

Here are some highlights/takeaways from sessions I was able to attend.

Overview

Jonathan Stray from Columbia University demonstrated Overview, a tool for analyzing and annotating “way too many” documents. It’s designed to extract a signal from noise in a large body of documents, like 391,832 reports from the U.S. Iraq War Logs, or Hillary Clinton’s State Department emails. Overview creates document maps based on topics, keywords, and other entities, with tools to drill down and find key information. A cousin to DocumentCloud, with some complementary features.

Building VR Interactives with Three.js

virtual terrain on marsArmand Emamdjomeh from LA Times blasted us though the process of modeling a three-dimensional virtual reality scene using Three.js and Mars terrain data from NASA. I found myself scrambling to keep up. At the end of the hour I had a working VR model of a Martian volcano based on geographic data. I could fly around the model using my laptop’s touchpad, or export the model for portable 3D displays. Coming soon to wearable devices.

Data Viz for All

The stories we publish today are increasingly experienced by users on small screens and mobile devices with limited bandwidth. Data visualization is now part of reporting and storytelling. INN’s own Lead Designer Julia Smith helped lead a discussion of data viz design for a world where “mobile friendly” can also mean “works better for everyone on all devices.”

Conversations: How Should News Apps Teams Respond to the Era of Distributed News?

Is it wise to rely on platforms we can’t possibly control? Is it even possible to go back? This session consisted of a thoughtful discussion of using Google AMP or Facebook Instant Articles without being consumed by them. Participants included developers from large news orgs like The Guardian, The New York Times, NPR, and smaller organizations more dependent on third-party technology solutions. Summary: becoming dependent on these platforms is a really bad idea; and it’s probably already too late to do anything about it.

How to Keep Up: Newsapps Teams as Lifetime Learners

Four team managers (including INN senior director Adam Schweigert) presented on learning, creativity, and diversity. A few worthy points:

  • Imposter Syndrome is an industry-wide epidemic.
  • Struggle is part of learning and we should embrace it.
  • A diverse team will always outperform a team that is homogenous.
  • Hiring good people with some skills generally works out better than hiring difficult people with mad skills.

Reporting and Presentation with DocumentCloud

A hands-on demo of DocumentCloud for reporting and publishing, lead by Ted Han from DocumentCloud/IRE. We’re in a golden age of open source tools for managing and making sense of large sets of data. In this session I got a taste of the power of DocumentCloud, and how easy it is to use for non-programmers. It’s a different use-case than Overview, and I’m curious to know more about how they could be used together.

So You Want to Be a Lonely Coder?

How do you “level up” from a journalist who does a bit of data work to a full-fledged coder in your newsroom? I think this is a key question the NICAR conference is trying to answer. This panel was about stories of success and failure, and let’s face it: the successes don’t often come first.

Lightning Talks

slide showing the number of NICAR attendees over the past few yearsFive-minute talks voted up or down by NICAR members. The top dozen proposals present a lightning talk. Inevitably, there were many slides with cats. It takes real courage to get up in front of 1200 people. Even if you're brilliant like all these people are. Definitely a highlight of the conference.

The Life Cycle of a News App

This session hit home for me as an accidental archivist. When we build a news app today, will it exist in five years? How many of our links will be broken? The history of the web informs us: Ten years ago Flash was the rage and smart phones didn’t exist. If what we publish matters, we need to think about how to keep it online and accessible. A great session with Scott Klein (ProPublica).

Ruby Web Frameworks: Rails

Another hands-on workshop with laptops provided by IRE. I participated in a Ruby intro session last year at Code4Lib. This one was better, and I might actually kind of understand Ruby and Rails at this point.

Intro to Python Frameworks

INN’s Director of Technology Ryan Nagle walked through Python as a framework for data applications and websites. For me this was the perfect thing following the Ruby session, as I was able to better grasp the similarities and differences. I feel better prepared to continue learning both Ruby and Python as a result. But I’ll definitely be hitting up Ryan for more help along the way.

Investigating Agribusiness: The Data and Stories Behind the Untapped Field of Our Food and Fuel.

Agriculture reporting panelPam Dempsey from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and BigAgWatch led a packed room of people interested in reporting on agriculture, business, science, the environment, health, energy, government policy, and of course the food and water we depend on daily. I see these intersections every day living in the Midwest, and there aren't too many issues more important to people's daily lives.

NICAR16 tl;dr

I know something about journalism and technology. But there’s still a ton I don’t know, and things are changing fast. NICAR seems like the kind of place where you could know things and share them, or not know things and learn them.

It’s also has become a primary gathering spot for mission-driven people to share their ideas and responses to far-reaching changes in technology, audience behavior, and business models for news.

For anyone interested in these things, it’s an extremely useful conference.

Postscript

The INN Nerds hold a daily video scrum meeting, and exchange asynchronous work communications and hilarious gifs on Slack. I knew Adam from a previous life in public media, but this was the first meeting in person with the rest of the INN team.

house we rented in denverWe rented a house for the week, and discovered that we enjoy a shared taste for things like coffee in the morning, eclecticism in music, the occasional taco and good beer, and nerding out about basically everything.

We worked hard the entire time, preparing for sessions, meeting with INN members, and perpetually responding to INN issues while pushing our product work forward. We also spent a day and half just talking about our role in the future of nonprofit news.

Remote teams need to communicate effectively over distance and time, and thanks to tools like Slack and Zoom it’s getting easier. But how much bandwidth is needed to build trust? You can learn from a webinar, but you can’t really have the kind of extended conversation where everyone in the room learns from each other.

Sometimes it's important for the INN team to meet in person, hang out, eat tacos, play a little guitar, and have extended conversations about what we’re trying to accomplish.

It’s great to share technology solutions and skills, but conferences like NICAR are so important because they give us an opportunity to build a community around them. That's how people really get things done.

Like another first-time NICAR attendee tweeted: