Jason Hoppin went to NICAR and came back “armed to the teeth”

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of reports from three Digital First Media journalists who attended NICAR14 through the Digital First Represents program.

There were close to 1,000 journalists at the 2014 NICAR convention, a nearly 50 percent increase over the prior year. That there were so many should tell you a few things: the idea of bending technology to serve journalism (especially investigatory journalism) is reaching a critical mass; the technology itself is accelerating; and people are starting to see how incredibly valuable this toolbox is to finding and telling stories.

Here are some examples. You’ve heard of the wildly popular (it raised $500,000 via Kickstarter) NPR t-shirt project? People who were at the conference helped create it.

You know the crazy story of how the Florida SunSentinel used toll booth information to calculate how fast off-duty cops were driving? Data guys were behind it, and won a Pulitzer Prize for public service.

How about the LA Times recently plowing through hiring practices at the LA Fire Department, leading to allegations of nepotism and quick vows of reform? A data guy is on the byline.

But what I most want to tell people about is a phenomenon that occurs to people at NICAR with any level of experience. This happened to me several times:

Once, someone showed me how to yank a table out of a PDF using Tabula, software he helped write. This is normally like pulling a sword from a stone. Now all you have to do is click, drag and push enter.

Another time, a speaker who was showing us how to manipulate spreadsheets with OpenRefine vowed: “What I’m going to show you is pure magic. It’s a miracle of modern technology.” We were skeptical. The work he was talking about can take hours. And then he compressed everything into a single click of a button, and the room nearly broke out in a riot. (This same phenomenon happened to someone I know — he had spent four hours that week working on something that our own Mary Jo Webster showed him how to do in five minutes).

One speaker told us to buy a $20 European USB radio tuner on Amazon, and within a few keystrokes you could have a map of every airplane flying overhead at that moment show up on your browser. You could also do this for every large boat off shore. And tune into pretty much any public safety radio frequency.

I learned how to script a web app and publish to the Internet without using a backend database or even a web server from the guy who put all of Nate Silver’s stuff up on the New York Times website.

I learned how to use Ban.jo, Foursquare and Geofeedia to find sources at breaking news scenes, with the latter searching multiple social media platforms within a defined radius, at a certain time. Think about that.

We talked about the importance of creating your own data, and how to utilize government inspection reports or fracking data or the Census. We heard a million great ideas. And we heard the limitations on those great ideas, because it all still comes down to reporting and verifying the truth.

Someone else taught us how to use cheap audio sensors to collect noise data and do stories, and how to hack digital cameras to take infrared pictures to track environmental changes. That speaker also talked about drones, and how Google has developed a smartphone that could potentially use the power of the crowd to digitize and map the interior spaces of, well … everything, everywhere.

I won’t veer off here into evangelism about how valuable this stuff is in an increasingly abstracted world, chopped into bits and bytes, quantified, and stored on a server somewhere in the middle of Kansas. Though the thought did cross my mind.

But I was inspired. And I felt more cunning in a way, as if I learned to think differently about this job. It’s not like I didn’t know this was possible — well, hacking digital cameras was definitely new — but it feels more attainable, very much within reach.

That is the curse. I have been stripped of my excuses. There were people at the conference who barely spoke English and were still trying to sit around the fire in search in insight. What reasons do I have left? My chore now is to go commit some journalism. It is a nice burden to have, especially when you feel armed to the teeth.

That LA Times database nerd who’s nailing the LAFD to the wall? His name is Ben Welsh. He spoke at the conference, and someone was geeky enough to upload a cell phone video of his talk to YouTube, as if Ben were Bruce Springsteen covering a Lorde song.

No, it wasn’t me. But you should watch it. Seriously.

By Jason Hoppin

Jason Hoppin is a reporter at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, covering the county and the environment in his hometown. Formerly at American Lawyer Media and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he has covered a number of beats in his career, including crime, state and federal courts, health care, politics and government at all levels. (And he still wants to try his hand at sports).

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