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Profile of the Data Journalist: Serdar Tumgoren

As in 2012, when I published a series of profiles of data journalists at Radar, I’ve conducted a series of email interviews after the annual conference of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR). They’re part of my research into data journalism’s past, present and future, helping me to debug debates about “what it all means.

The second interview with Serdar Turmogren, co-creator of the Knight News Challenge-funded OpenElections project, follows. It has been lightly edited for clarity, content and hyperlinked for context.

Where do you work now? What is a day in your life like?

serdarThe Associated Press. As a member of the relatively new Data Team, it’s a pretty mixed bag: devops/server work; newsroom tool-building, such as our in-house install of DocumentCloud; data wrangling and analysis for sundry investigative and spot stories.

I also help reporters hunt down and navigate data sources for stories, and help them apply budding technical skills when I don’t have the time to get involved on a project myself.

How did you get started in data journalism? Did you get any special degrees or certificates? What quantitative skills did you start with?

I started as a print reporter but was bit early on by the investigative journalism bug. The document chase quickly broadened to include data, and led me down a traditional “CAR path” of spreadsheets to databases to programming languages and web development. When I first started programming around 2005, I took a Perl class at a community college. My grade in that class shall remain hidden under lock and key.

…but seriously, you don’t need a computer science degree to master the various skills of “data journalism.” I learned how to apply technology to journalism through lots of late-night hacking, tons of programming books, and the limitless generosity of NICARians who shared technical advice, provided moral support, and taught classes at NICAR conferences.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources they shared with you?

Dave Sheingold at The (Bergen) Record. Derek Willis and Aron Pilhofer at NYT. Troy Thibodeaux at the AP.

Unbiased technical knowledge and advice that always brought the focus back to journalism. It’s easy to get obsessed with the tech side, something Phil Meyer warned us about.

What does your personal data journalism “stack” look like? What tools could you not live without?

Python, Ruby, Linux, spreadsheets and databases, QGIS, and myriad command-line tools for wrangling data.

If I could only keep one tool (and all of its libraries), I’d have to say Python. Nowadays, it can handle most everything you’d need, from general data wrangling to analysis to visualization to Web frameworks.

Ruby is a solid alternative, so I’m not looking to start any flame wars here. In my case, I’m still partial to Python because it’s the first programming language in which I gained a degree of fluency.

What are the foundational skills that someone needs to practice data journalism?

Same as a good investigative reporter: Curiosity and doggedness.

Mastering a programming language requires the same curiosity and persistence as unravelling a bureaucratic maze. You have to be willing to put in the hours and not give up when you hit a dead end.

Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

IRE/NICAR, PythonJournos, colleagues past and present.

What are the biggest challenges that newsrooms face in meeting the demand for people with these skills and experience? Are schools training people properly?

Sometimes. news organizations see us as an amorphous group of nerds who can be plugged into an org chart, and out will come Data Journalism! Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.

My skill set is wildly different than those of the next “data journalist.” I think schools are making a better effort to train young journalists in many of the skills that fall under the umbrella of data journalism: data wrangling, analysis, visualization; statistics; digital literacy (how does the Web work?); Web development.

But very few journalists are actually master of all of these skills. (I can’t name one). The real question is, do news organizations know what they want or need? If you understand the goals of your organization, you can go out and find the right kinds of nerds. Otherwise, you’re hiring in the dark.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or creating?

Rebuilding the elections data system for The Washington Post’s Web operation. It was a monumental — and some would say foolhardy — undertaking, but we ultimately created a system that helped power many Web and mobile interactives/graphics during the 2012 primaries and presidential election.

What data journalism project created by someone else do you most admire?

Congress Votes, an app at The Washington Post created by Derek Willis. This is the first big political news app (that I’m aware of) that tried to provide an interactive experience of such a high-profile government data set, with a high degree of back-end automation. It also tried to have a little fun. (Zodiac signs for Congress critters, anyone?)

It inspired many of us to start thinking about how we could be more creative and engaging on the web with government data. While we’ve seen many advances in the years since, I think Congress Votes stands out as a milestone in the history of news apps development.

How has the environment for doing this kind of work changed in the past five years?

The tools and knowledge have exploded. Powerful open source tools are increasingly available, along with countless free books and tutorials online. Cloud computing platforms are providing cheap or free ways to experiment with data tools. It’s had a massive democratizing effect, and that’s a good thing.

What’s different about practicing data journalism today, versus 10 years ago?

There are way more nerds at NICAR conferences. Seriously, the tent has grown bigger to include programmers, Web developers, data scientists (I’ll leave it to others to debate whether that’s a new name for stats geeks), and sundry other nerds.

Is data journalism the same thing as computer-assisted reporting or computational journalism? Why or why not?

Yes. Ultimately, we’re trying to marshal technology to bring context to people’s lives. The tools and methods and specialties evolve, but the goal remains the same: Keep the public informed.

Why are data journalism and news apps important, in the context of the contemporary digital environment for information?

Data journalism is vital, because we’re confronted with a growing ocean of information in electronic form.

A data journalist is anyone, in my book, who can fluently work with this primary source. It’s the same as a traditional reporter, who should know how to hunt down human sources and interview them.

News apps are harder to pin down, and I often find folks don’t have quite the same definition. If we’re talking about telling data-driven stories in a digital context (mobile, Web), well, then yes, I’d say news apps are an important piece of the puzzle for informing people in a different medium.

What’s the one thing people always get wrong when they talk about data journalism?

That it’s new. Ben Welsh and “KRS One” summed that one up quite nicely at NICAR 2014.