Profile of the Data Journalist: The Hacks Hacker

Chrys Wu is helping other journalists learn how to practice data journalism at "Hacks and Hackers."

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. In that context, data journalism has profound importance for society.

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. This interview followed the conference and featured a remote participant who diligently used social media and the World Wide Web to document and share the best of NICAR:

Chrys Wu (@MacDiva) is a data journalist and user engagement strategist based in New York City. Our interview follows.

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

I work with clients through my company, Matchstrike, which specializes in user engagement strategy. It’s a combination of user experience research, design and program planning. Businesses turn to me to figure out how to keep people’s attention, create community and tie that back to return on investment.

I also launch Hacks/Hackers chapters around the world and co-organize the group in New York with Al Shaw of ProPublica and Jacqui Cox of The New York Times.

Both things involve seeking out people and ideas, asking questions, reading, wireframing and understanding what motivates people as individuals and as groups.

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

I had a stats class in high school with a really terrific instructor who also happened to be the varsity basketball coach. He was kind of like our John Wooden. Realizing the importance of statistics, being able to organize and interpret data — and learning how to be skeptical of claims (e.g., where “4 out of 5 dentists agree” comes from)— has always stayed with me.

Other than that class and studying journalism at university, what I know has come from exploring (finding what’s out there), doing (making something) and working (making something for money). I think that’s pretty similar to most journalists and journalist-developers currently in the field.

Though I’ve spent several years in newsrooms (most notably with the Los Angeles Times and CBS Digital Media Group), most of my journalism and communications career has been as a freelancer. One of my earliest clients specialized in fundraising for Skid Row shelters. I quantified the need cases for her proposals. That involved working closely with the city health and child welfare departments and digging through a lot of data.

Once I figured that out, it was important to balance the data with narrative. Numbers and charts have a much more profound impact on people if they’re framed by an idea to latch onto and compelling story to share.

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

I don’t have individual mentors, but there’s an active community with a huge body of work out there to learn from. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been collecting things on Delicious and Pinboard, and it’s why I try my best to put everything that’s taught at NICAR on my blog.

I always try look beyond journalism to see what people are thinking about and doing in other fields. Great ideas can come from everywhere. There are lots of very smart people willing to share what they know.

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

I use Coda and TextMate most often. For wireframing, I’m a big fan of OmniGraffle. I code in Ruby, and a little bit in Python. I’m starting to learn how to use R for dataset manipulation and for its maps library.

For keeping tabs on new but not urgent-to-read material, I use my friend Samuel Clay’s RSS reader, Newsblur.

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

I’m most proud of working with the Hacks/Hackers community. Since 2009, we’ve grown to more than 40 groups worldwide, with each locality bringing journalists, designers and developers together to push what’s possible for news.

As I say, talking is good; making is better — and the individual Hacks/Hackers chapters have all done some version of that: presentations, demos, classes and hack days. They’re all opportunities to share knowledge, make friends and create new things that help people better understand what’s happening around them.

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

<p As much as I can, I make time for tutorials and online classes. Stanford and MIT’s open courses have been great. There’s also blogs, mailing lists, meetups, lectures and conferences. And then there’s talking with friends and people they know.

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

I like Amanda Cox’s view of the importance of reporting through data. She’s a New York Times graphics editor who comes from a statistics background. To paraphrase: Presenting a pile of facts and numbers without directing people toward any avenue of understanding is not useful.

Journalism is fundamentally about fact-finding and opening eyes. One of the best ways to do that, especially when lots of people are affected by something, is to interweave narrative with quantifiable information.

Data journalism and news apps create the lens that shows people the big picture they couldn’t see but maybe had a hunch about otherwise. That’s important for a greater understanding of the things that matter to us as individuals and as a society.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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