Profile of the Data Journalist: The Elections Developer

Derek Willis is putting data journalism to work on campaign finance and elections at the New York Times.

Around the globe, the bond between data and journalism is growing stronger. In an age of big data, the growing importance of data journalism lies in the ability of its practitioners to provide context, clarity and, perhaps most important, find truth in the expanding amount of digital content in the world.

To learn more about the people who are doing this work and, in some cases, building the newsroom stack for the 21st century, I conducted a series of email interviews during the 2012 NICAR Conference.

Derek Willis (@derekwillis) is a news developer based in the District of Columbia. Our interview follows.

Where do you work now? What is a day in your life like?

I work for The New York Times as a developer in the Interactive News
Technologies group. A day in my work life usually includes building or
improving web applications relating to politics, elections and Congress,
although I also get the chance to branch out to do other things. Since
elections are such an important subject, I try to think of ways to collect
information we might want to display and of ways to get that data in front
of readers in an intelligent and creative manner.

How did you get started in data journalism? Did you get any special
degrees or certificates?

No, I started working with databases in graduate school at the University
of Florida (I left for a job before finishing my master’s degree). I had
an assistantship at an environmental occupations training center and part
of my responsibilities was to maintain the mailing list database. And I
just took to it – I really enjoyed working with data, and once I found
Investigative Reporters & Editors, things just took off for me.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources
they shared with you?

A ton of mentors, mostly met through IRE but also people at my first
newspaper job at The Palm Beach Post. A researcher there, Michelle
Quigley, taught me how to find information online and how sometimes you
might need to take an indirect route to locating the stuff you want.
Kinsey Wilson, now the chief content officer at NPR, hired me at
Congressional Quarterly and constantly challenged me to think bigger about
data and the news. And my current and former colleagues at The Times and
The Washington Post are an incredible source of advice, counsel and
inspiration.

What does your personal data journalism “stack” look like? What tools
could you not live without?

It’s pretty basic: spreadsheets, databases (MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQLite) and
a programming language like Python or, these days, Ruby. I’ve been lucky
to find excellent tools in the Ruby world, such as the Remote Table gem by
Brighter Planet, and a host of others. I like PostGIS for mapping stuff.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or
creating?

I’m really proud of the elections work at The Times, but can’t take credit
for how good it looks. A project called Toxic Waters also was incredibly
challenging and rewarding to work on, too. But my favorite might be the
first one: the Congressional Votes Database that Adrian Holovaty, Alyson Hurt and I created at The Post in late 2005. It was a milestone for me and for The Post, and helped set the bar for what news organizations could do with data on the web.

Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

My colleagues are my first source. When you work with Jeremy Ashkenas,
the author of the Backbone and Underscore Javascript libraries, you see
and learn new things all the time. Our team is constantly bouncing new
concepts around. I wish I had more time to learn new things; maybe after
the elections!

Why are data journalism and “news apps” important, in the context of the
contemporary digital environment for information?

A couple of reasons: one is that we live in an age where information is
plentiful. Tools that can help distill and make sense of it are
valuable. They save time and convey important insights. News
organizations can’t afford to cede that role. The second is that they
really force you to think about how the reader/user is getting this
information and why. I think news apps demand that you don’t just build
something because you like it; you build it so that others might find it
useful.

This email interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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