Learning story-telling from developers and designers

An article in Poynters Online about the communications gap that exists between journalists and programmers struck a chord with me today.
It’s a liveblog debate on the issue, with contributions from academics, journalists and developers, and the full discussion is here but to give a flavour of the issue, here’s the paragraph that initially caught my eye:

It’s oversimplified to call it a right-brain, left-brain difference, but it’s clear that while programmers and journalists need each other, they don’t always find it easy to work together. Differences in project needs and personal styles can add to the disconnect.

I guess journalists and developers don’t always work well together but perhaps that’s because they so really get the chance to.
I’ve been lucky enough (and it really was a bit of luck – sometimes I think companies believe departments should be kept separate in case of cross-contamination of ideas) to work with designers and programmers twice in recent months; both times were hugely illuminating, in terms of what is technically do-able and – more interestingly, for me – the considering different ways of storytelling or sharing information someone who hasn’t come through the traditional media route can see. 

First lesson came when a developer sat down with me, listened to my ideas, suggested ways of doing things more effectively or attractively, and then wrapped it up with a throwaway remark: “Practically anything is possible if we just know what you’re trying to achieve”.
It made me realise that if I can’t explain a concept it’s much harder for someone to put flesh on those bones, or come up with a faster or better option. 
Drawings, screengrabs, websites and a concise written brief are a good starting point to have shared before you sit down to actually discuss the project.

The other recent example of how journalism isn’t the preserve of someone who is, so to speak, classically trained, was the Hacks Meet Hackers hack day event organised by ScraperWiki in partnership with LJMU Open Labs and Trinity Mirror Merseyside. 

There’s a round-up of the day on my work blog which describes the projects in a bit more detail. 

I was there as part of a number of mainstream journalists (TM or freelancers) teamed in groups with Those Who Can Code to see what we could create in a day.
And I loved it. It ws the most fun I’ve had learning things since long-distant days of the Journalism Leaders Course when we spent time discovering Twitter and video editing at UCLan. It brought home important lessons about how play is a huge part of learning, no matter how old you are, and why collaboration between disparate groups can bring about important culture changes.

The team I was in comprised some journalists, a coder, and a designer. Our project was going to be some sort of datamining-on-steroids extravaganza, with crime statistics and health statistics overlaid to reveal complete and through profiles of, ooh, all sorts of things.
Three hours of hectic data searching later, it became apparent that we were headed for an extravaganza of fail, and our coder had left to find something to scrape.

At which point, designer Sam Suttonsuggested visualising existing data on the Echo website instead to reinterpret an existing story. We had a few hours left before judging so we picked an interesting topic and, to be honest, it was actually way more interesting than our original idea. Because it had narrative, and data, and imagery in a way that captured the imagination. 
The idea was to create a mashup that moved, taking the reader through the story, around a map, using photos, video, articles and audio to bring together the elements of complex story, in a chronological and geographical timeline that tells it simply and effectively. This is the wireframe that was put forward…

I love it. I think it’s an idea that just works; it had narrative, rich depth of information, used existing resources (the photos, video and articles, for example) and combined them on a Google map. It was a very valuable lesson in not over-complicating things, and a great piece of journalism conceived and produced by a visualisations expert. The designer interpreted the data way more effectively than I had even thought to and for that alone
I found the Hacks and Hackers Hack Day a great learning experience. 

It was a lesson in co-operation, and also in going against reporter instincts to find new facts. This repackaged facts but allowed the user to skip forward, pause, stop, go back – to control how they followed the narrative and when they accessed it. I really like that part of it -the idea that you can skip around this piece of work and, as a journalist, dive back into it and update it as cases proceed. So it not only lives, it moves. 
There are more ScraperWiki hack days planned for journalists up and down the country. I only hope they’re as lucky as our team was with their visualisations expert.

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