Telling better stories: Why learn to code in 2014

2014 might well become the year of code. These notes are about why I believe we should learn how to code and to show the beautiful things that can be done with it. For those who are, as me, in the profession of communications, learning to code is to learn a language to tell better stories, stories that are intelligent, interactive, and integrated.

So last week, I gave a talk to a couple of colleagues at the Inter-American Development Bank on this issue. Here is a formatted version from my notes.

Data-driven journalism

Let me start with a powerful example of how coding and superior data management has changed an industry. Journalism (There is of course lots of discussion if journalists should learn to code). One example is Giannina Segnini – I’ve written about her work before. The Costa Rican journalist heading the investigative unit of La Nación started as a traditional journalist. However, a couple of years back, she realized that to continue to do her work effectively, a journalist had to become a hacker. With this in mind, she set up a new form of newsroom, combining web developers, designers and reporters who knew how to program.

Last year, she and her team were approached by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with a huge dataset of people, businesses and where they are registered. They did not know yet how incredibly useful this information would turn out to be.

The result of this effort was the Offshore Leaks database and visualization. It served as the foundation for the stories around the world that led to a major policy shift on the issue of offshore taxes and tax havens –  and new regulations such as in Colombia.

Giannina received a special award to journalistic excellence as part of the Garcia Marquez Awards last year. Her example shows us how journalism has changed, how data-driven journalism increasingly requires knowledge on coding, and how we can’t rely on our traditional set of communications tools anymore.

21st Century: Technology and Coding

Living in the 21st century the world has changed. Our world has been disrupted by the increase of data and the advancement of technology. We are surrounded by it. Tablets, phones, cars are packed with computers, smart meters (or why would Google buy Nest), even movies.

Behind all of this is code. Code is simply a language. A language to talk to machines.

Last year, Grace Hopper, a pioneer in computer programming, would have turned 107 years. Google created this wonderful Doodle that illustrates how coding is a language quite beautifully.

Code is a language for machines. It tells a machine what to do. With our live surrounded by machines, speaking and writing code becomes an essential tool to control our environment.

Code is a tool to solve problems.

Coding communications

As communicators, our main goal is to get the right information to the right people. So here are the three things you will be able to do, when you learn just a little bit of code.

You can

1) Tell better stories through more beautiful websites (HTML5, CSS3, Javascript) and design. My favorite example is the well documented Snow Fall feature by the New York Times that started a trend in integrated storytelling. On another level, MIT’s logo is an amazing model of how to tell the story of an institution – the logo has been programmed in Processing by the Green Isle Studio in Berlin.

2) Get better data. Programming languages will help you analyze, sort, save and retrieve information better, such as the 2010 World Cup Ranking.

3) Present information through interactive graphics or infographics, and interactive maps. D3 is a language to create exactly this. Designers are using programming to be more precise in their designs, such as this one on population density. The Hewlett Foundation did a great app to explore their grants. I did a little map for my employer using Mapbox. And there are many, many more.

These were just some examples to illustrate how code can be a language to tell better stories. Stories that are intelligent, interactive, and integrated.

Of course, most of us will never become a pro in programming languages. To be fair, most of us will struggle to gain digital literacy learning how to do HTML and CSS, the ABC of the web. But getting the grasp of coding will helps us talk better to the experts, the programmers we work with.

But learning how to code in the 21st century is as important as understanding television in the 20th century.

You have to control the medium. Only then you can control the message.

Learn a new language. Take an hour, and learn how to code. I actually did a one-hour processing course, which I found really useful. There are many others.

Do you agree? How important will coding become in communications, or other professions?

elections in Germany: visualized

Germany’s elections turned out to be much more exciting than expected. While I hope my vote made it over the Atlantic (I don’t want to be counted on this map of non-voters), I’d like to share with you a couple of visualizations on last Sunday’s Bundestagswahl. While researching, I quickly came across this great collection of visualizations by, so I won’t add any new ones to the lists, only a couple of my favorites.

The Hochburgen – or strong holds

Hochburgen translated literally from German to English means high castle. It is also a ruin close to Freiburg, my home town. This graphic by the Zeit tries to identify these party strong holds within the German’s party landscape. It took me a while to get a grasp of it, but once I did, I actually found it quite revealing. The geographic mix-up continues to confuse me though.

The black Republic

Probably the graphic that most impressively illustrates the election results – and an overall sentiment in Germany: not only by number of votes is the CDU near an absolute majority,   even more so it is so by across East and West, and North and South. A green enclave in Berlin Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain, a couple of spots covered by the Linke, some more by the SPD and the rest: black. Not much of a difference actually when looking at the votes for the candidates, or the party.


Despite the black Republic, Berlin shows a somewhat differentiated picture. The Berliner Morgenpost has analyzed local election results by the smallest possible entity (making of), and Michel Jansen follows the path of where the Berlin Wall blew its breach (illustration via @albertocairo).

(I tried to embed this tweet, but it did not work. Ideas for what I am doing wrong anyone?)

And yours?

What are your favorite visualizations? Did you do your own? Here are the official numbers (not really open, but at least in tables). Historic data visualized here.

the newsroom, data journalism and impact

Last weeks Comcast Watchathon brought me the doubtful experience of catching up on a couple of shows I’ve been curious about. Not much good came out of it. Of the one I had some hopes for was The Newsroom. Not only because I have been discovering The West Wing lately, but also because the topic is related to my profession as a communications specialist (though I have never worked in a TV newsroom, only in print).

For the sake of this article, let’s put the drama aside (and there’s a lot of drama and shouting and so on in the first three episodes, all that I watched). The promising idea was respectful: Create an evening news show that focuses on the facts, balanced reporting, and not squinting on the latest audience data. Alas, it only exists in monologues of high-flying aspirations for the show. What is shown of the show is what is being criticized: opinionated journalism, not fact-based journalism. The impact is measured by: the happiness of lead anchor Will McAvoy and his boss Charlie Skinner. How many candidates have been cross-examined. And overall ratings are 7% lower. Then I switched off.

Measuring impact of journalism

Which brings me to the white paper by non-profit journalism organization ProPublica Issues Around Impact I read this weekend: A very useful introduction by Richard Tofel into the complex task of measuring reach and impact of journalism – something that Jonathan Stray called last year a maddeningly difficult task!

There weren’t many ways of measuring the impact that did really surprise me, but I found a couple of findings very useful:

1) While true impact is rare, the “return-on-investment” is actually not at all that low. Take that ProPublica has employed about 20 reporters in recent years, and its annual reports cite around 9 instances of significant impact in each of 2010, 2011 and 2012.

2) And while not all investigation yields monetary returns, some actually do. Such as ProPublica’s reporting that won the organization its second Pulitzer and that has already resulted in more than a half billion dollars in fines and settlements paid to the federal government by financial institutions.
What to expect from journalism?
3) So what impact do we actually expect from journalism? Media as the control and accountability organ (the fourth power) is a key role for sure. In the case of ProPublica, the focus is very strongly on accountability and prevention of abuse of public power, as its mission states: “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting ofwrongdoing.”

But how about improving the lives of the people by identifying shortcomings of society more generally. (Keeping in mind the difference between journalims and advocacy that Tofel distinguishes well)

Snow’s cholera map

The data journalist

In my view, there is a new role of the journalist evolving: As a connector of journalism for improving society through data, stories (such as citizen journalism), and exposing not the abuse, but the simple not-knowing-it-better or not caring about enough. And researching and exposing data that may not be that clear at all.

A good example might be data journalism, a branch of journalism that traces its origines from the classic example of John Snow who uncovered through mapping of data the reasons for a cholera outbreak in the London of the 19th century.

This connection of journalism with data could provide for increased potential for impact. It might also put the journalist much more strongly in the middle of the policy forming process, and puts a focus on the integrity of data.

Research is of course nothing new for a journalist, it is quasi in its DNA, but I believe that with the technification – or hackerization – there will be some returns to come in the future.

By the way, it would be interesting to know how the New York Times was planning its impact when publishing their story into the hidden riches of Wen Jiabao’s family. Will our website be blocked?