Why civic hackers should hang out in a newsroom

In Spiegel's snack bar, the sixties are going strong.

Coming out of a successful hackday, you usually need two things: a good night’s sleep and ten months of time to grow the things you’ve worked on into a real product.

While sleep is easy to come by, finding the time and the environment to work on crazy ideas is much harder. This is why, after visiting open government-related hackdays for three years, I’d begun to dread these events: I’d meet interesting people and begin an exciting project with them, but then wouldn’t find the time to follow up.

Things felt very different in January, when I flew to Boston to join the 2013 OpenNews fellows for a hackday at the MIT Media Lab. Collaborating on our projects that week, we knew that we had the backing to grow things and to get them out into the real world. We’re still working on these tools now, a hacked-up collection of scripts to search data for news stories has turned into a real software project, datawi.re.

Pushing a project forward means talking to the users of your tools, or finding out how you can build an audience for the information that you’re trying to share. Newsrooms are great places for both of these things: reporters and editors are demanding and critical customers. And, needless to say, publishing a nicely prepared dataset on a high-traffic news site is a quick and effective way of getting it out there.

For example, I’ve learned a lot by pitching tools developed in the OpenNews community to my host organisation. Datawrapper is now in regular use on the site, while more advanced tools like Overview, Poderopedia and OpenSpending have spawned debates about the types of data gathering and analysis activities Spiegel and Spiegel Online should engage in.

Learning about these technologies is just one aspect of the community that sourrounds the fellowship. During a two-week visit to the US, Annabel and I managed to not only visit the Guardian’s US offices, ProPublica, the New York Times and Google NYC, but we also got to attend the MIT’s Civic Media conference, an incredible melting pot of the worlds of civic technology and news.

Visiting Brian and his newsroom graphics rendering farm at the New York Times.

Five months into my fellowship, I’m certain that the best place to learn how to engineer great civic applications is in a newsroom. Working to create narratives that feed into a news cycle, address a wide audience and tell a clear story is an amazing challenge for any technologist. Being involved in journalistic projects as a fellow puts you in the center of a three-way interaction between reporters, the data at the core of your story and the technologies used in its presentation.

At the same time, being a fellow gives me the independence to experiment with new technologies and to go outside of the organisation. During the past few months, I’ve met people from all across the globe and learned about their ideas and work. This is a great time to be involved in this discussion, and the fellowship will put you right at the center of it.

Apply, and join us.

p.s. Have I mentioned how fun all of this is? I’m writing this post in a circus tent at OHM2013 near Amsterdam, surrounded by 3000 international hackers discussing the future of privacy, home-made technology and code.