Megan Taylor

front-end dev, volunteacher, news & data junkie, bibliophile, Flyers fan, sci-fi geek and kitteh servant

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NOT Another Resolution: Learn Design

I deliberately left something out of my resolutions post last week.

I left out my recent efforts to defeat my greatest weakness: Design.

Forget about when I started building Web sites (age 11), my relationship with design didn’t start until I got into online journalism.

And I learned that I couldn’t design my way out of a keg. ::shudder::

For a while I thought I could get away without being able to design visual elements. I could shoot photos and video, I could program in Flash and code a site from a .pdf. After all, there’s a reason for having designers, right?

I was wrong. I learned that sometimes, there just isn’t enough designer to go around, and you have to be able to make your own decisions. Things move faster and more smoothly if I don’t have to go ask the designer about an element.

Also, there are design elements to everything else I do online, from customizing a Twitter page to visualizing data. I was going to have to learn.

But how do you learn design?

I didn’t take a class, or sign up for a workshop. I just started reading design blogs. Following designers on Twitter. Paying attention to what I liked about certain Web sites and what made them ugly.

And I’ve made progress. I’m not good at details, but I can spec an overall design that doesn’t make people wish for blindness. I’d say I’ve reached paper bag status (as in can design my way out of), but anything more is beyond me.

I want to get better, because I hate not being able to do things. And because Web deisgn is important. I know I’ll never be a designer, but it would be nice to have a touch of the craft.

So if you’ve got resources, blogs, Web sites, or people that I should be paying attention to, please let me know in the comments.

Edit: I decided to add in a list of what I’m reading.

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New Year’s Resolutions: Surviving in the Real World

Even though I graduated from college in May, I have trouble with the concept of not being in school. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I love school, and I miss all the things that come with it: being a part of a community, constantly learning new things, the surety of having something to work toward for the next few years.

Obviously, these are all part of living in the real world as well, but they seem harder and less tangible. I’ve lived in the Bronx for three months now, and I still only know the building super and the guy at the convenience store down the street. I’m so busy trying to make rent that I’m not learning the way I was in school. Sure, I learn new things on the job, but it’s very different. As for goals to work toward, instead of aiming for a degree I know I can get, I’m working toward a career in an industry that’s too busy trying to land on its feet to notice my efforts.

There’s no despair in this. Just readjustment. And resolutions.

I don’t need to be in school or have my dream job to learn new things or to be a journalist. I just have to carve out the time to do what needs doing.

So here’s a list of things I want to learn or do, regardless of jobs.

  1. Formally learn Javascript. I have some experience, but mostly in the vein of searching for the code that will do what I want, and implementing it. I’d like to be able to write a little on my own.
  2. Learn PHP. Like Javascript, I know quite a bit just from fiddling with websites (especially WordPress). But I’d like the formal knowledge that would allow me to manipulate databases without have to do a Google search every ten minutes.
  3. Write. I recently signed up at BrightHub, a science and technology site. I’d like to write at least one article a week. In addition, I want to try some pitching for publications. I think that my deficiency in published writing (due to a proficiency in multimedia and programming) has been detrimental to my career goals.
  4. Produce multimedia and web development projects. I want to keep my skills fresh, even if I’m not using them in day-to-day work. So each month I’ll come up some sort of project to work on, be it video, photography, data analysis…just something to keep me from getting rusty.
  5. Find a way to participate in my new community. I’ve been poking around community boards for the Bronx, and have also found some interesting groups in Manhattan. I want to get involved. There are also a few online communities that I’m a part of that I’d like to be more involved in.

I think these are good ways to be a journalist without the benefits of working for a publication. I’m still busting my butt to get a job in news, but until then, this is a good simulation.

What else can I do to be a journalist without the framework? What tips or advice can you give me for fulfilling these resolutions?

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Why I am the Future of Journalism

I submitted this for my entry to Publish2’s “I Am the Future of Journalism” Contest:

I have the will and the adaptability to be the future of journalism.

It’s not that I know how to write stories, use a video camera and write code.

Those are secondary qualities.

I am passionate about news. Passionate enough to learn new skills, to experiment with technology, to challenge myself to tell stories in multiple dimensions.

The power of news is change. It’s a cliche, but knowledge really is power, and journalists are the disseminators of information.

In journalism school they say “Show, don’t tell.” Somewhat ironically, print stories are limited in this capacity. Radio and television are better at showing.

But the mediums are merging. The buzzword is “convergence,” but what it means is that the media is catching up with technology.

A story is no longer a block of text. It is more than the sum of it’s parts; it includes video, links, databases, infographics and audio. A story is an experience. And when forced to acknowledge wrongness on such a level, how can people but work to change it?

Journalism makes an idealist out of me.

I’ve worked in a cramped college newsroom and a spacious metro daily. But the job was the same: What is the best way to make this information meaningful?

To that end, I’ve used Flash, Twitter, maps, video, podcasts. I’m learning more programming languages, exploring social media and experimenting with the possibilities introduced by the Internet.

Abraham Maslow, a psychologist in the early 20th century, said “He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.” The more tools we have, the better our stories become, because there isn’t just one way to do it.

I’m going to need a ginormous toolbox.

I don’t dream of working in a smoke-filled newsroom, surrounded by press hats and old coffee. I dream of the day when the world is my newsroom. I’ll work from the streets or my living room, and the physical state of the newsroom will be a server.

I AM THE FUTURE OF JOURNALISM CONTEST.  Rate my entry!

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I’m in the gray, working with public relations

I’ve been wanting to write a bit about what I’m doing and where I’m working, but had trouble figuring out how to approach the subject.

You see, I work for a PR company.

I can hear you all gasping. No, I have NOT crossed over to the “dark side.”

PR companies are scrambling like most other institutional businesses to figure out this whole “Internet thing.” My job as “Digital Media Intern” is to move Quinn & Co. forward by teaching how social media works. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, the whole kit and caboodle.

So I’ve been doing lots of research: what’s the best blogging platform for their purposes, how can the company and their clients build loyalty through Twitter and Facebook, how to monitor brands with Google Alerts, optimizing press releases and websites for search engines, and building lists of bloggers and micro-bloggers for Real Estate, Travel and Food, Wine & Spirits.

I’ve also been doing some multimedia work: a video from a media panel, working on an interactive email design.

All of which is very helpful in getting to my goal.

I want to work in news. No question. I don’t care if it’s a newspaper, magazine, radio station, because when you get to the website, it’s all the same.

Ultimately, news outlets have to learn the kinds of things I’m learning now. How do you build niche audiences online? How do you manage an online community? And so on.

While my true love is reporting through multimedia (including data), this is fun, too. I’ve never liked the black hat/white hat metaphor, so I’m working in shades of gray.

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Google will tell you when you’re going to get sick

I hate flu season.

Mostly because everyone around me gets sick and depressed and my well-meaning parents nag me to get a shot I don’t have time to wander around looking for.

Somehow, despite not getting a flu shot since sometime in middle school, I haven’t had the flu in years. The last time I got it, I was ridiculously sick for 24 hours, and then I was just fine. I <3 my immune system. But for those of you who do get sick, Google has a new toy for you. (If ever I were going to be a fangirl, it would be for Google.)

Using the existing Google Trends, Google Flu Trends predicts flu activity based on search terms.

From their about page:

Each week, millions of users around the world search for online health information. As you might expect, there are more flu-related searches during flu season, more allergy-related searches during allergy season, and more sunburn-related searches during the summer. You can explore all of these phenomena using Google Trends. But can search query trends provide an accurate, reliable model of real-world phenomena?

We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries from each state and region are added together. We compared our query counts with data from a surveillance system managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and found that some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in various regions of the United States.

During the 2007-2008 flu season, an early version of Google Flu Trends was used to share results each week with the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the Influenza Division at CDC. Across each of the nine surveillance regions of the United States, we were able to accurately estimate current flu levels one to two weeks faster than published CDC reports.

But my favorite part is this: You can download the raw data being used to generate all those nifty charts and maps.

Now, someone please tell me they’ve downloaded that data and are turning it into a swoon-worthy app for their news website?

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A journalist outside of j-school

…not quite like a fish out of water.

I graduated from the University of Florida 5 months ago, and it took this long to realize that while I brag that everything I know comes to me from Google Reader and Twitter, I knew a lot more when I was surrounded by other journalists.

I knew who the badass journalists were, I knew when and where the awesome conferences were and I knew where to turn for any other information I didn’t have at my fingertips.

Now I’m 1,000 miles away from that network. I don’t know anybody here, I don’t know where to look for all the things I used to know.

So my question today is, as a journalist learning to be out of school, where do I turn?

I want to know when there are good conferences or panels in the city. I want to forge relationships with other journalists. Where before I was guided by my teachers, I now have to do these things myself.

Any advice?

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Bandwagon of the summer: News APIs

In May announced its intention to build an Application Programming Interface for its data. MediaBistro quoted Aron Pilhofer:

The goal, according to Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news, is to “make the NYT programmable. Everything we produce should be organized data.”

More details, if they can be called that:

Once the API is complete, the Times’ internal developers will use it to build platforms to organize all the structured data such as events listings, restaurants reviews, recipes, etc. They will offer a key to programmers, developers and others who are interested in mashing-up various data sets on the site. “The plan is definitely to open [the code] up,” Frons said. “How far we don’t know.”

I haven’t heard anything since then, although the article mentioned that something would be ready “in a matter of weeks.”

Today I spent some time reading the API documentation for National Public Radio.

That’s right, NPR has an API. (mmm, I love my alphabet soup.)

NPR’s API provides a flexible, powerful way to access your favorite NPR content, including audio from most NPR programs dating back to 1995 as well as text, images and other web-only content from NPR and NPR member stations. This archive consists of over 250,000 stories that are grouped into more than 5,000 different aggregations.

You can get results from Topics, Music Genres, Programs, Bios, Music Artists, Columns and Series in XML, RSS, MediaRSS, JSON, and Atom or through HTML and JavaScript widgets.

Now, I’m a bit of an NPR junkie, so I’m thinking of ways to access all this information for my personal use. And I can see how it could be useful as an internal product for NPR.

But how would another news organization use this? Oh wait, they can’t:

The API is for personal, non-commercial use, or for noncommercial online use by a nonprofit corporation which is exempt from federal income taxes under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

This one doesn’t make sense either:

Content from the API must be used for non-promotional, internet-based purposes only. Uses can include desktop gadgets, blog posts and widgets, but must not include e-newsletters.

And way down at the bottom of the page is a huge block of text describing excluded content. Boooo.

Check out these blog posts from Inside NPR.org, where they explain some of their decisions.

I think this was a great first step, but if you’re gonna jump on the bandwagon, make sure you don’t miss and land on the hitch.

cat

Further, really understand what purpose this bandwagon has. If you’re going to free your data, free it! Let people and news organizations use it (always with a link back) for all kinds of crazy things. Remember kids, sharing is caring!

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New project: Borrowers Betrayed

A week ago, I was assigned the task of building the story package for a series on mortgage fraud. This had been in the works at The Miami Herald for quite some time, and the investigative team was finally ready.

When we found out that Congress was working on legislation relevant to the series, the package was fast-tracked. I had one week to build this thing.

It launched yesterday morning and if I do say so myself, it’s wicked cool. We have profiles and documentation for 4 major offenders, a flash graphic, a couple of static graphics, a slide show and a video, in addition to all the stories.

I even got a credit line in the footer!

I learned a lot about coding fast – quick and dirty sounds good, but it pays to take just a few extra minutes to do it right. It was also a good team experience. It’s so much harder to put things together when no one know what anyone else is doing, it almost justifies meetings! (Except that’s why we have instant messenger and Twitter.)

And guys, I forgive you the millions of revisions and changes. Everything turned out great.

Check out how they did the story.

So what’s next? I have a bunch of different projects on my plate, but I’ll give you a few hints: Video, Flash, ActionScript 3, XML, Twitter, database, Django, Python. Not another word! You can’t drag it out of me!

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Miami Herald’s updated Health section

Well, my first project is live! The Health section of the Miami Herald’s Web site has been redesigned.

My contribution is that slick-looking sidebar on the right. I had some help from Stephanie Rosenblatt for the graphics, and of course she put together the Doctor Sleuth. (They are using Caspio and I have been too busy for training!) The tabs on the results pages are mine though.

There’s some more projects on the table for the Health section, so hopefully I’ll get to be more involved over the next few weeks.

I finished working on a little PHP script today, with Rob Barry’s help, that queries, parses and geocodes some data. Hopefully we’ll have that into the DataSleuth system soon.

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Internship, week 2

So last week I got one of my projects to the “show it to the boss” point. Supposedly it’s going live tomorrow. I will link then.

My story has been postponed until “official action has been taken” whatever that means. Oh, well.

I have 2 other projects to finish this week, plus a couple of long-term data projects, and the grapevine tells me I’m getting a new assignment today. This is good, cause I’m used to high-pressure deadlines and that hasn’t been the case so far.

Over the weekend I purchased Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson by UF’s very own Bill McKeen, as well as The Definitive Guide to Django: Web Development Done Right, by Adrian Holovaty and Jacob Kaplan-Moss.

I can’t wait for these to come in. I really want to continue to learn different programming languages and frameworks. My internet access at home right now consists of finding an open wireless network on my street and sitting outside with the mosquitoes, so some books will be really helpful.

If anyone wants to recommend other books or online resources, please do!