Today marks the halfway point in my ten-month OpenNews fellowship with the BBC Visual Journalism team in London. With five months behind me and five more to go, it’s a good time to take stock. What have I done? What have been the highlights and surprises?
A great community
The first half has been an incredible experience. I’ve worked on dozens of exciting projects, attended great events all over the US and Europe, and learned enough to fill volumes. BBC Broadcasting House is a pretty special place to come to work in the morning. But the biggest highlight, by far, has been the people.
Besides my great colleagues at the BBC, I’ve met so many incredible people at events like NICAR, the Mozilla Festival, and this week’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. I always leave these events with my head spinning from so many fascinating conversations, and in between the in-person meetings, the conversation keeps going at the online water cooler. Not only is this little universe full of scary smart people doing interesting work, but they’re all incredibly generous with their time and expertise, answering questions, offering feedback, sharing hard-won wisdom. The community really is everything.
The most pleasant surprise of all has been my seven fellow fellows. When I went through the application process, I didn’t give any thought to what other people might be chosen, or what sort of relationship I’d have with them. Getting the chance to meet, learn from, and work with this amazingly talented crew has been such a treat. The same goes for the 2012 fellows and our fearless leaders, Dan Sinker and Erika Owens.
Bridging the divide
So far we’ve covered things like making maps for the web, scraping, how a web server works, performance issues, and Excel vs. databases. Every week ends up being a great, wide-ranging discussion about how different roles think about these things, conflicting priorities, and blind spots. The dirty secret? I learn way more than I teach. Leading these talks has given me all kinds of insight into how editorial and design roles tend to think about certain problems, and where the opportunities for smarter tools and processes really lie. I’m looking forward to continuing these for the rest of the year, and hoping I can even convince some designers and reporters to take the reins and lead some lunches of their own.
Some other things I’ve done so far
- While I waited for my UK visa to come through, I did an analysis of the New York Times crossword puzzle. I also wrote about it for the Guardian Datablog.
- On my first night in London, I was goofing around in my hotel room and ended up with Infinite Street View.
- I worked on the BBC’s coverage of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.
- I found religion listening to Ben Welsh’s lightning talk at NICAR.
- I worked on Pakistan election coverage for the BBC World Service. (I don’t speak Urdu, but I’m told I made an election map)
- I wrestled with D3 and clipping Voronoi paths to create a map of sports team territories and a related visualization of NFL fandom.
- I mapped the secret lives of cats. #futureofjournalism
- I learned D3, Leaflet.js, Python, a bit of Java, a dash of Node.js, and lots of other new tricks.
- I spoke to Hacks/Hackers London about my fellowship experience, and about teaching yourself to code.
- I discovered that the BBC has a lift [sic] that stops at half-floors.
- I dusted off my very broken Spanish for Malofiej 21 in Pamplona.
- I finished a pet project, an interactive map of the history of San Francisco street names.
Midterm report card
Back in January, I set out some of my goals for the year. For those keeping score at home, my grades look something like this:
Write something. C-
I’ve posted a few things on this blog and elsewhere, so I haven’t been a total deadbeat. But there are lots of other topics I’ve meant to write about, and projects I’ve meant to document. I hope to be better about this in the second half.
Teach Something. B+
Between blog posts, speaking engagements, and the Learning Lunches, I’ve done all right in this department.
Understand the dynamics of a large news organization. C
I have to grade myself on a curve here. I could work at the BBC for 30 years and still only understand a tiny fraction of its institutional logic, but considering that I had absolutely no concept of how a major newsroom worked when I started, I’ve come a long way.
Build something together with the rest of the 2013 fellows. F
Total failure. Fortunately, we’ve talked about this, and plans are in the works to team up in the second half as a news development Megazord and do something awesome.
Learn the state of the art. B
Give in to Twitter. B+
I get it now. Consider me converted.
Figure out how to explain OpenNews to my grandmother. D
I think she understands that it involves news, at least.
I’ve got a long list of project ideas for the second half of the year, and I hope to do a better job of showing my work by writing about it, speaking about it, and putting a lot more code on GitHub. I also want to create something that will outlive me at the BBC, whether that’s a set of tools, a process, or even just a useful idea. At the same time, I’ll be continuing with more Learning Lunches and crisscrossing the globe to attend lots of other great events. The challenge is going to be fitting it all into just five short months.
Coming soon on this blog: what I’ve learned about news development so far, and a deeper dive into lessons from our Learning Lunches.