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?