Oct 28, 2015

Back to school

Very excited to tell you that on Monday I’ll be on a brief leave of absence from CBC to teach at the University of King’s College journalism school.

I’m teaching a six week workshop in digital journalism to students in their final year of J-School.

Their job is to write and edit The Signal website. My job is to supervise them, advise them, and grade them. The workshop’s job is to prepare them with real world experience so they can be ready for the newsroom.

Hey j-students: if you are reading this, I'm guessing it's because you tried to find out something about my background. Right on. That’s the way you should be researching every single person you interview. Keep it up! I hope we’re going to have a great workshop together.

Oct 7, 2015

How likely is it that Chase the Ace will last until the final card?

It was an absolute pleasure to work the weekend of the final Chase the Ace in Inverness, Cape Breton. I stayed at CBC for a full extra hour just to watch the excitement. It was fabulous entertainment. As we watched, we talked about the odd chance that turned a small town fundraiser into a $1.7-million jackpot. As our friend and colleague Blair Sanderson put it on Twitter:
How unlikely was the fundraiser at Inverness? How improbable was it that it could grow so big, and last so long?

I went home determined to think this through. What are the chances that the game of Chase the Ace would go almost all the way to the end? Here's what I came up with (with a big thank you to the boy, a mathematician at MSVU, and two statisticians from SMU for verifying this is correct).

I thought about the probability of drawing the ace from a deck of 52 cards. The probability is 1 in 52. The same probability applies to every other card in the deck. So I imagined there are 52 simultaneous games of Chase the Ace running. In one of those games the ace will be drawn first, and in one of those games it will be drawn last. In all the other games the ace will be drawn somewhere in the middle.

Or, you could think about it this way.

So it's a 1 in 52 chance - or, if you want to express it another way, a 1.9 per cent chance - that the ace will be the final card drawn.

That's not very high, but depending on how you look at it, it's not very low either.

So knowing this, I wondered: could the magic at Inverness happen again? The answer is a definite yes. And if you look at it statistically, it's not only possible, but it's almost becoming likely.

Consider this: the Chase the Ace phenomenon is spreading throughout the Maritimes, fuelled partly by the success story in Inverness. The phenomenon only arrived here two years ago. CBC Radio reported on Oct. 6 that 25 games of Chase the Ace have been registered on P.E.I. in recent days.

25 games! Roughly halfway to 52, in just a few days - and there's no reason to think they'll stop there. If the fundraisers prove successful, people will try to replicate that success again and again. And as the frequency of games goes up, so will the number of games that progress all the way to 52 draws, or close to it.

What happened in Inverness will happen again - you can bet on it.

Aug 6, 2015

Takeaways from the CAJ conference, Part 3

This is what five years worth of data looks like.
David Weisz of the Toronto Star, who is a co-instructor at the University of King's College data school, led a session at the June CAJ conference titled, Dirty Data and Common Mistakes.

From the annual King's College Data School website, this is what data journalism is about:

Data journalism encompasses a lot of things these days, from the data analysis skills that have traditionally been known as computer-assisted reporting, or CAR, to computer programming to developing news applications...CAR skills can range from using a spreadsheet to re-order and make sense of a list of large salaries, to using a database program to crunch through a large inspection database to designing maps that compare poverty and crime in your community.

One example where a large dataset might be analyzed in a spreadsheet program (typically people use Excel or a program like it), is this story about how eleven nurses at the Nova Scotia Health Authority are earning twice their salary, while "dozens more are earning tens of thousands of dollars more in overtime." It raises important questions about why nurses are working so hard, and if it's safe for them to do so.

I am trying to work through a huge dataset right now (pictured above!) so I decided to go over my notes from David Weisz's session to remind me about good data practices. A few pointers:

-All data sets are dirty. There will always be technical errors.
-Make sure you have a strong index. That means, make sure each individual record has its own unique identifiers. This avoids duplicates and makes connections within the data set.
-Check to see that each individual identity number only comes up once.
-Relying on scraped data is a great way to be wrong.
-Don't be afraid to check issues that seem wrong with other sources such as communications staff, FOI staff, annual reports.
-If you feel you may be wrong about the conclusions you are drawing from your data, embrace your fear. You may well be wrong.
-Outliers: do they catastrophically affect the story? Has someone screwed up somewhere? If you can work around it, do. Give ranges instead of exact figures, if necessary to remain accurate.
-Know the weaknesses of your data and be prepared to defend them.
-Get and give as much context for the data as possible.

Jun 24, 2015

Takeaways from the CAJ conference, Part 2: How to tell your stories with maps

The map below was created using a program called ARCGIS, a mapping service offered by Esri Canada, a company that specializes in geographic information. Try each of the different tabs (Global Ports, The U.S., Southern California) for a new map. 

Paul Voegele presented on behalf of Esri at the CAJ conference, teaching a course on how to use the mapping service through free accounts offered to journalists. Esri profits come from other paid services. The reason it offers the technology to journalists, Voegele explained, is because Esri hopes to build exposure as journalists embed their maps within news sites. All their maps have an Esri watermark built in. 

Here are a few examples of story maps built using ARCGIS. The links are embeddable and shareable. You can upload data from a .CVS file for quick mapping. The maps are very customizable. You can also layer in real-time conditions collected by Esri, including things like traffic conditions, building footprints, and even Twitter comments made by location.

Esri is also linked to Environics demographic information, which could be quite powerful if you're trying to map something like household debt or income by city.  

Jun 11, 2015

Takeaways from the CAJ conference, Part 1: Dean Beeby and FOI for Dummies

On June 5, I went to the first day of the Canadian Association of Journalists' annual national conference. I wasn't able to attend both days of the event, but the sessions I did go to were fantastic. In the next few posts I'm going to lay out what I learned, session by session. This is part one: Dean Beeby and FOI for Dummies. 

It was a great treat to meet and talk for a bit with Dean Beeby. He spent almost all of his career at the Canadian Press, and just last year he went to the CBC's Ottawa bureau. To give an example of his reporting, Dean broke this story about the Harper government leaving $97 million dollars unspent on social services.

That story couldn't have been done without certain key documents. Governments generate millions of documents, and the majority of them will never be seen by the public. Access to information stories give people an insight into ways governments work that we would not otherwise have, Dean explained. 

It costs a $5.00 application fee to use freedom of information (FOI) and access to information/privacy (ATIP) legislation. Legislation exists at the federal and provincial levels, and some municipalities. Federal is the easiest to navigate and the best place to practice requests. Some major federal departments such as the department of national defence are now accepting online applications and payment by credit or debit card. This is good, because the department is required to respond with certain time limits and online applications expedite the process.

Here's what comes with the $5.00 application fee: email responses from the department, a CD of electronic copies of the documents (if requested), 125 pages of photocopies, and 5 hours of processing or research time by department staff. Sometimes we hear about FOI applications costing ridiculous amounts of money, but Dean said that by targeting his requests and making multiple requests (each new request gets 5 more hours and 125 more photocopies), he rarely pays anything more than the application fee. 

Your identity as a requester is supposed to be confidential and stay within the ATIP unit - but a minister can overrule this. Also, any applications marked "journalist" as opposed to private citizens may be flagged to the minister's office. There is an option where you may "decline to identify." 

Somebody in the audience asked if it would be helpful to have a non-journalist make the requests. Dean said he didn't think that would work very well, and in a climate where it is very hard to get an answer from the federal government we should use the legislation fearlessly. Be polite, be persistent, demand good service and respectful treatment.

Some documents are privileged and excluded from ATIP requests. But some of those, such as cabinet confidences, will be declassified after 20 years. Then they'll come under the act, and if they still have relevance to what's going on today, it could be worthwhile to request. 

Six months is about the maximum useful timespan to request a series of documents (e.g. requesting documents generated between January 2014 and June 2014). If you request more, you may end up with a pricey bill or more information than you can handle. You can also split up your requests (e.g. one request for January-June, a second request for July to December).

Make it a habit to request lists. You can then look over the lists and see if there are items on the list that deserve a deeper ATIP. E.g. at the beginning of the month, Dean requests a list of briefing notes to ministers and deputy ministers. All he receives are the titles of the notes, but then he looks over the titles and does a second ATIP on anything he thinks is intriguing. He encouraged all of us to pick a ministry and try this next month.

Also, keep your wording in requests general. "Briefing notes" might be too specific. "Briefing material, including briefing notes, memos, Powerpoint material, house cards, etc" is better. Etcetera is a good word to include. 

If you are not sure about useful wording, you can take a look at the federal database of completed ATIP requests. Any of those completed requests can be ordered without paying the $5.00 fee, so you can see what you might get back.

Try things like checking the Canadian Merx tendering website. Maybe a department is ordering an interesting consultants report, to be due on a particular date. You could make a note in your calendar and ATIP that report when the date comes around.

Any citizen can use the ATIP/FOIPOP legislation for themselves. It was put in place to give citizens better access to their government. Only about 15 per cent of requests come from reporters, Dean said. The rest come from opposition parties, trade unions, lobby groups, and many other types of requesters. Dean said many reporters never learn to use this legislation but he sees it as a duty. 

Here is Dean's quick guide to ATIPs, posted on the CAJ website. Follow him on Twitter @deanbeeby.

Apr 3, 2015

I was in Costa Rica in March, which was a relief from this endless winter. We rented a car and drove around the country, from the wet green mountains to the dry heat of the Pacific coast.

Good moments:

Zip-lining down mountains and rappelling down waterfalls.

Lying on the beach watching the surfers.

Soaking in a hot tub underneath a volcano, watching the green fireflies wake up in the dark.

Ceviche for dinner.

Green hummingbirds outside the window when I woke up.

Stopping to drink tea at a tiny cafe in a village on top of a mountain all wreathed in cloud. The cafe was run by three generations of women who somehow made sense of our broken Spanish. They made the meals on a brown Aga cooker and we sat at the counter and watched while they washed the dishes. Then we watched a football match next door.

The evening our Costa Rican host brought us shots of homemade moonshine made from sugarcane, pineapple, and corn.

Driving through a small village on Sunday morning when everyone was coming out of church carrying long green spiky things, and realizing that it was Palm Sunday and people had carried actual palm fronds to service.

Feb 25, 2015

On story structure

I was thinking this week about story structure. There is a rhythm to news stories, and when you produce them every day it becomes mechanical. Clunk, clunk, clunk.

So you have to force yourself to think about things like story structure sometimes, especially for an exceptional story.

Here's one. It is a story about an old man, lost in a snowstorm, who abandons hope and prepares himself to die. He is rescued at the last moment by an ex-politician who mistook him for a seal, then carries him to safety.

There are a few different ways that you could structure that story for broadcast. Somehow, you have to bring out that marvellous moment when we realize: that's not a seal, that's a man.

This lesson from This American Life's Ira Glass was in my mind. Glass is a master storyteller, and he makes a case for the power of anecdote. There's a great force behind the question, "what happened next?"

You want to present a piece of bait, Glass says. Constantly be raising questions and answering them. What is that dark shape lying on the ground?

"You can feel through its form, that when you have one thing leading to the next, to the next," Glass says. "You can feel inherently, that you're on a train that has a destination, and that he's going to find something."

I say, we have to begin with Charlie Parker, the former MLA with the seal question. In news we usually start with the most important information, but you can't have a big reveal if you give it all away at the top. It's rather unusual to find that the main character of your story is, himself, the big reveal, but this is why it's good to think about story structure sometimes.

Here are a few more thoughts on story structure:

Anyone who writes (particularly for broadcast) should listen to Ira Glass on storytelling.

Totally worth dissecting the essays of Joan Didion. In Blue Nights she describes writing in a way that sounds more like musical composition - putting down marks on the paper to determine the rhythm of the words. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live," she wrote in The White Album. "We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely... by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

From the Nieman Foundation for journalism: "Stories give shape to experience."

Kurt Vonnegut gives an amusing talk on story structure.