First immigration hackathon introduces reporters to data exploration technologies

“Want to help? Shut up and listen!” That’s what I once heard said by Ernesto Sirolli, founder of the Sirolli Institute, an international non-profit that develops and mentors community leaders. It perfectly describes the situation faced by journalists who work outside the English-speaking mainstream.

Sirolli suggests that one should never approach a community with a fixed idea in mind. Throughout my 14 years as a journalist, I have participated in an endless number of programs and projects based on well-meaning ideas about how to help “minority” media journalists. But there is one thing that can stop these good-intentioned efforts in their tracks: when the training is offered from a mainstream perspective that has nothing to do with the challenges ethnic journalists face.

This disconnect between good intentions and real needs can be resolved if trainers take time to observe, listen and learn about the challenges that confront journalists who work for non-English media. But “minority” journalists also need to take matters into their own hands and design their own self-help programs. That’s what I did.

Bringing reporters into the loop

Taking immigration stories from narrative to digital and using data to develop and better illustrate stories was my passion during my Knight Fellowship. And that’s what I wanted to share – the power of data visualization to quickly tell a simple or complex story and the excitement of hackathons, where programmers and journalists find new ways to mine open data.  

I had recently returned to Los Angeles from Silicon Valley, where hackathons pop up like popcorn and the mantra of collaboration is so powerful. I began planning what would be the first immigration hackathon, in Los Angeles, with Knight Fellowship colleague Teresa Bouza, who had organized hackathons herself. We even started brainstorming about a national immigration hackathon.

But I quickly realized it wasn’t going to be easy. The term “hackathon” was meaningless, I found out, to Spanish media reporters and those who had not experienced one. “What is data-journalism? What do you mean by data visualization stories?” editors and colleagues asked. Only a few people were interested in my workshop. 

Sirolli was right. So I stopped planning for a while and listened. What I heard was that Spanish media journalists first needed to be introduced to this field they knew so little about. In endless conversations with my colleagues, I learned that they had great ideas for data projects, but lacked technological skills. Now I had a framework for my hackathon. It would show how, with technology, open data could be used to develop new information around immigration. 

Journalists brainstorm at L.A. Migrahack

Journalists and programmers gathered at the L.A. Migrahack to crunch public data to develop new information and stories about immigration. photo: Aurelia Ventura, La Opinión

But I still needed to involve programmers. I was afraid the tech community wouldn’t join this project. Meanwhile, the list of people interested was growing, as journalists spread the word.

Getting programmers on board

In my despair to find programmers, I went to a data science behavioral conference at CalTech Pasadena. After the presentation and during announcements, I walked to the center of the large room, grabbed the microphone and, surrounded by scientists, said: “My name is Claudia Nuñez, I am a Hispanic journalist and I need your help.”

The response was unexpected. They listened and liked the project. Their opinions helped me shape the first immigration “tut-hack,” training and tutorials supported through the collaboration of different disciplines.

On the morning of Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, what began as an experimental idea culminated in the first L.A. Migrahack, a gathering of nearly 100 professionals at the downtown headquarters of La Opinión newspaper. In addition to members of the ethnic press (La Opinión, La Prensa, and LatinoCalifornia), participants included journalists from such English-language media as the Huffington Post, National Public Radio and the Associated Press.

We had workshops led by professionals from Google, Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology as well as investigative reporters and ex-NASA engineers. I also had help from many Knight Fellows: Bouza, deputy bureau chief of EFE news service’s Washington D.C. bureau; Phuong Ly, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Journalism and founder of Gateway California, a nonprofit that helps journalists connect to immigrants; Mary Aviles a current Knight Fellow and senior editor for EFE based in San Jose; and Martyn Williams, a senior correspondent at IDG News Service, and his wife Tomoko Hosaka, Williams. 

Hundreds of people who couldn’t attend the hackathon were able to view it live on Ustream.

“This is the first time that a hackathon has concentrated the power of technology and open data with the journalism collective, a specialized journalism that cares about the immigrant community and a journalism that is in Spanish, which is so important in a country as diverse as ours,” said Monica Lozano, CEO of impreMedia, which publishes La Opinión, the largest circulation Spanish-language daily in the United States.

 KPCC radio reporter Ruxandra Guidi, like many participants, had never heard the term “tut-hack,” but decided to check out L.A. Migrahack anyway. “It’s been great! There’s a lot of need for training how to handle data, how to analyze it and make it worthwhile in terms of the story,” she said. “I think most of the journalists these days, including myself, are very intimidated both by data and technology that uses data, and there isn’t much of a culture to encourage collaboration either.”

Masters of their universe

After the workshops, participants divided into teams led by programmers, scientists, and engineers. Together, they produced seven informative projects. Among them were maps that visualized the connection between obesity and diabetes among the Hispanic population in Los Angeles County; interactive graphics that illustrated the number of recent green card recipients, their country of origin and the state where they currently live; and a program that displayed the waiting period for immigrants seeking green cards and reunification with their families.

“The hackathon is the type of training that modern journalists need – how to use new technologies, translate numbers and data into stories, and report in a new visual way that is appealing, interesting, informative and easy to understand for the general public,” said Cesar Arredondo, an immigrant reporter and head of the L.A. chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Anyone who has listened to ethnic-media journalists knows that they are masters of generating information for their communities. What has been missing is the training in technology to help us produce better context not just more content.