Megan Taylor

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


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love GIS

This week I started volunteering my time and skills at the Norwood News, a bi-weekly community newspaper serving the northwest Bronx communities of Norwood, Bedford Park, North Fordham and University Heights. The Norwood News is also part of the Bronx News Network, a series of community papers serving various neighborhoods in the West Bronx.

One of the projects I’m working on is a series of maps of various districts in the Bronx, starting with city council districts.

The first map was to be a simple graphic with no animation or interactivity. The second would be a map of all the city council districts in the Bronx, with clickable regions and information boxes for each district.

I started out with Photoshop and some images from the New York City Campaign Finance Board (for future reference, images are located here).

After about 45 mins of tinkering, I realized that method wouldn’t work. At the size that was required for the paper, I couldn’t get enough detail for people to easily figure out where the district lines were.

My next attempt was to start drawing the districts in Google Maps. By hand. (Using the My Maps Shape function)

I got frustrated enough with that to do what I should have done at the beginning: send out the call on Twitter asking for maps.

Derek Willis was kind enough to respond with the shapefiles from the New York City Department of City Planning. (A later search gave me this response to a question on Yahoo! Answers, with a long list of maps.)

Now, one of the reasons this hadn’t occurred to me before is that I’ve never really worked with GIS data before. I don’t have any software for it, and neither does the Norwood News.

So at this point I had to get the shapefiles into a format I could actually work with, preferably KML, which works with Google Maps.

A quick Google search brought me to Conversion of Shapefile to KML : An overview of tools available. It looked like my only option would be GeoCommons, a free online tool that lets users upload data and create maps from it.

GeoCommons will also provide a downloadable version of the data is CSV or KML format.

After downloading the KML file and uploading it to my own server, I plugged the link into Google Maps to take a look at what I had: city council districts for New York City.

Now I needed to narrow it down to just Bronx districts. A simple matter of removing the districts I didn’t need from the KML file, which conveniently labeled each data set with the correlating district number.

NYC_citycouncildistricts_BronxIn the end, this project probably took 5 or 6 hours. If I hadn’t been muddling around so much, I could have done it in one or two. But now I have a file of all the Bronx districts in KML, which can be altered to remove or add as much information as I want. And to see it, I just have to enter the URL for my KML file into Google Maps.

I’ve missed doing this kind of work (lately I’ve been doing more writing and very basic computing tasks) and really look forward to doing more projects like this one at the Norwood News.


New York should copy

New York City is in the process of opening a whole lot of data to developers as part of the BigApps competition.

Contestants will be asked to develop functional digital applications that will facilitate the dissemination of and greater access to publicly available City data. NYCEDC will manage the competition (including logistics and promotion) and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) will coordinate the formatting and release of selected City data to the public. The BigApps Competition will help to make City government more transparent, accessible and accountable and stimulate innovation in information technology that could lead to new businesses and job creation.

In order to do this, developers have to send in a request for data

These descriptions should provide as much detail as possible about the type and level of data desired. In addition, respondents are requested to describe how they envision the data being used in software applications that provide a useful service to City residents, visitors and government.

The Open Government NYC Meetup group is running BigAppsDevCamp, a workshop to help developers navigate the system of requests and proposals required by the city. They are also collecting project ideas.

Today, I saw an example of where New York should be heading. Infosthetics pointed out San Fransisco’s open data initiatives, including DataSF and San Francisco CrimeSpotting.


DataSF is an online repository of datasets available from the City & County of San Francisco. Similar to the goals of the and initiatives, DataSF aims to improve access to data, help the community create innovative apps, understand what datasets the public likes to see, and receive feedback on the quality of the data. Included data ranges from all the trees located in the San Francisco streets (planting date, species, and location) to all its building permits or complaints.

In my opinion, that’s how New York should be running this competition. Don’t make developers try to guess how detailed your data is, or what you are collecting. I’m hoping there is an enterprising developer out there is who requesting ALL NYC data and will then make it all available to the public.


New York City addressing data availability, uses

I feel almost as if Mayor Bloomberg saw my previous post about NYC data. PDF09 by stevegarfield PDF09 by stevegarfield

The Sixth Annual Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) began yesterday. (Recap) The forum is examining the convergence of new media and politics, and includes speakers such as Craig’s List’s Craig Newmark, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, venture capitalist Esther Dyson, new media evangelist Jeff Jarvis, and FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver.

Among the topics being discussed are:

  • State-of-the-art online politics and advocacy
  • Designing .gov for participation
  • Twitter as a platform for organizing and fundraising
  • The future of political journalism, blogging and network media
  • How to use online video for political and issue based advocacy
  • The rise of mobile politicking and organizing
  • Rethinking media campaigns and organizations from the ground up

During his keynote on how technology is improving government yesterday morning, NYC Mayor Bloomberg announced the “BiggApps competition,” challenging developers in the audience to “play with city data.”

MayorBloomberg PDF09 by magnifynet

MayorBloomberg PDF09 by magnifynet

Here’s the press release for the competition:


City Providing Data to the Public to Allow for the Development of Applications for Computers and Mobile Devices as Part of “NYC Big Apps” Public Contest; 311 and Enhanced through Skype, Twitter and Google

Obama Administration Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra Applauds City Efforts

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today announced a series of technology initiatives designed to increase transparency and improve access to information about City services. The City will provide data to allow for the development of software applications that can be used on websites and mobile devices, and through what will become an annual competition known as NYC Big Apps, the City will encourage innovative and useful applications. The Mayor also announced the launch of 311 Online and other improvements to 311 and through services provided by Skype, Twitter and Google. With call volume to 311 continuing to increase, 311 Online will allow the City to maintain the current level of service with current staffing levels, potentially avoiding more than $4 million in additional costs next fiscal year. The Mayor made the announcement in remarks delivered through Skype to the Personal Democracy Forum at Lincoln Center, an annual conference that explores how technology and the Internet are changing politics, democracy and society. New York City Chief Information Officer and Commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Paul J. Cosgrave also attended the conference.

“We’ve already made great strides increasing the accessibility of City data and transparency of City government, and these initiatives will use private sector technological innovation to bolster those efforts,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Through NYC Big Apps, 311 Online and services offered by Skype, Twitter and Google, we’re working to provide public information to New Yorkers in as many ways as possible.”

“We applaud New York City’s leadership on delivering a more open and innovative government,” said Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra. “These five announcements align well to President Obama’s Open Government Initiative and reflect best practices worthy of replication to achieve excellence in public sector performance.”

“Today’s package of initiatives represents an historic stride in transparency – even for systems that have made accessibility commonplace,” said Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Commissioner Cosgrave. “As successful as we have been in opening up City government to those it serves, the key to technology deployment for any organization is to continue innovating. As 311 and grow, the City needs to adapt and engage New Yorkers in utilizing the data it collects to keep fresh these enduring avenues of access.”

NYC Big Apps

Through the NYC Big Apps annual competition, the City will provide an array of data sets to encourage the public to develop applications that could benefit New Yorkers. Approximately 80 data sets from across 32 City agencies and commissions may be made available on, including such categories as citywide events, property records and sales information, recreational facility directories and restaurant inspection information. The City will invite the public to create innovative applications, and winners will be awarded a cash prize and marketing opportunities. Mayor Bloomberg plans to congratulate the winners in person at a dinner. The contest will begin this fall. The program will be administered by New York City Economic Development Corporation, which today issued a Request for Expressions of Interest to solicit information from software developers and professionals in related fields to identify additional data sets to be aggregated.

“Finding opportunities to engage our innovative high-tech workforce is integral to the continued growth of the media sector in New York City,” said New York City Economic Development Corporation President Seth W. Pinsky. “By making City data available to a broader audience and encouraging our entrepreneurs to create new applications using that information, we leverage existing resources to stimulate investment and create jobs.”

311 Online

Mayor Bloomberg launched 311 Online, a one-stop, searchable web portal on for thousands of New York City services. Through the site, New Yorkers can obtain information, report problems, lodge complaints, check the status of previously-filed complaints and request City services – just as they can by calling 311. Users can browse through a directory of City services, search for available services by specific demographic or service type, and access quick links to featured services and top services. Keyword searches and advanced search options allow customers to navigate directly to the information. Users will be able to attach pictures, videos and audio files to their complaints and service requests.

311 Skype and Twitter Accounts

The Mayor announced 311 Skype and Twitter accounts. Through Skype – a software application that enables calls to be made over the Internet – people from around the world will be able to call 311 for free. The City will use Twitter – the free, social messaging service – to ‘tweet’ information regularly about such things as alternate side of the street parking status, schools closures and information about citywide events. 311NYC tweets will be 140 or fewer characters in length and can be sent to any mobile device via texting, instant messaging or the web. Information about emergency events and services will continue to be accessible via Notify NYC.

Google Collaboration to Improve Site Content on

The Mayor also announced that the City is working with Google to use Google search patterns to better understand the usage of and ultimately improve site content. By analyzing trends for New York City-related searches made by Google users, the City will tailor content to user preferences and improve costumer service.


The competition will make about 80 data sets from 32 city agencies and commissions available to developers to create “applications to help Internet users navigate vast stores of data in areas like citywide events, property sales, recreational facilities and restaurant inspections.”

It will be run by the NYC Economic Development Corporation and the winner will get a cash prize, a dinner with Mayor Bloomberg, and marketing opportunities.

At the same time, unrelated to PDF09, a meeting on Open Data Standards in NYC was held by the New York City Council Committee on Technology in Government.

Looks like data is definitely getting some love (or at the very least, lip service) in New York. I wasn’t able to make either event, so if you did, let me know how it went in the comments!


Data in New York City

On top of the Empire State Building, Manhattan, New York City, by meironke.

On top of the Empire State Building, Manhattan, New York City, by meironke.

One of the things that makes doing web journalism in New York City absolutely frustrating is the lack of online data.

I’m not looking for anything strange. The first data set I wanted was crime reports that include individual crimes and locations. NYPD publishes weekly crime statistics, but not data that could easily be plotted on a map.

It absolutely stuns me that one of the biggest, most famous cities in the world is so backward. And why hasn’t the police department been slammed with FOIAs from every journalist in the city for the past 15 years?

Guardian DataStore

Guardian DataStore

About a week ago I posted to Twitter an idea for creating a data hub for NYC, in the vein of The Guardian’s Data Store. Everyblock does a good job of the collecting what data NYC does put online, but their job isn’t to track down city departments and convince them that providing clean data in multiple, usable formats would be to their benefit.

About a year ago, some journalists were complaining about the “data ghettos” that began popping up on newspaper websites. The problem was/is that newspaper organizations began publishing databases without context.

How would my NYC data hub be different?

It’s not. I don’t envision this as journalism. It is, instead a service provided TO journalists.

The idea needs some more fleshing out, some investors, and a business model. But it’s doable, and necessary. I don’t ever want to hear another editor turn down an idea because it will take 2 years and a FOIA to get the required data.


MediaShift Innovation Spotlight: BronxRhymes Tracks History of Hip-Hop

mediashift spotlight logo The MediaShift Innovation Spotlight looks in-depth at one great mash-up, database, mapping project or multimedia story that combines technology and journalism in useful ways. These projects can be at major newspaper or broadcast sites, or independent news sites or blogs. The main spotlights will run every other week, with mini-spotlights running on the off-weeks.

And this week we’re back to our normal column. I found a really great project produced by two individuals who did not set out to create journalism, but have done so nevertheless: BronxRhymes Uses Locality, Maps to Track History of Hip-Hop.

BronxRhymes is an attempt to raise awareness of the history of hip-hop in the Bronx, the northwestern borough of New York City where the musical style is thought to have originated. The history of hip-hop is illustrated through rhymes and plotted on an online map.

Inspired by music, history and technology, Masha Ioveva and Claudia Bernett created a way for the community to become engaged in its history, at a time when gentrification may be wiping it away.

Please let me know of any innovative projects you are working on or have seen lately. It doesn’t have to be from a major newspaper; it just has to be an innovative blend of journalism and technology. Please e-mail me at mtaylor[at]megantaylor[dot]org to submit a Spotlight recommendation.


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?


Blog Guidelines

Since I’ve decided to shed the SOJO identity, I decided to write the post I should have written 2+ years ago when I started blogging.

Editorial Guidelines

This is my blog, so I’ll write about whatever I want. Most times, that will mean something of interest in the realms of journalism, the media, or the Internet. But I reserve the right to deviate from those topics at will. Alternate topics could include my cats, life in New York City and movies/music my roommate exposes me to.

I will, however, promise to discuss all these topics in a reasonably intelligent manner.

I will not post negatively about any of my employers. I will not post content that has been declared “confidential” by any of my employers. I might remove content that my employers ask me to take down, on a case by case basis.

My views as written here do not reflect those of my employers. On the other hand, they are free to agree with me.

Commenting Policy

I’m a big fan of open commenting. But no spam filter is perfect, so I’ll remove any comment that I perceive as spam.

I’d prefer you not attack any of my employers in the comments, though you may feel free to ridicule me to your heart’s content. I’m a tough broad.

If you commented with something interesting or useful, I’ll probably respond. If I don’t, either your comment was silly or I just didn’t have anything to say. Take it as you will.

My personal contact information is plastered all over this site, so please feel free to e-mail me with anything you don’t think is appropriate for comments, including job offers.

Social Media

I use the handle “selfmadepsyche” across most of the social media sites I frequent. (Twitter, Delicious, YouTube, Flickr…)

My comments on some of these sites will usually be less formal than on my blog. Feel free to contact me on any of these sites.


Mix two parts “my blog is having an identity crisis” to one part mild distaste for rules and you get an approximation of why this was written with so much snark. Add a dash of salt, and take it with the good humor with which it was meant.

I love this space, and I’m still trying to figure out how it should change as I go through changes in my own life. I want to share the things I experience and learn with people who are interested in similar topics. I want to grow as a writer, as a journalist and as a person. I’m hoping you’ll all help me with that.


Yet another “What I learned” post – Miami Herald Internship

Friday was the last day of my extended internship with The Miami Herald. I will miss working with such forward-thinking journalists, so many people who, whether they understand the intricacies of the digital world, really want to know how to make things work.

It’s amazing how close people can become in just a few short months. I feel like I have a family at the Herald: the people I worked with were kind, supportive and enthusiastic.

The most important thing I learned has nothing to do with skill set or journalism in particular. It was learning to work with people who believed in me from the start, who saw what I could do and let me do my job. It’s a heady feeling.

I also learned that, no matter where you are, there are always those silly bureaucratic things that get in the way of progress. I ran into these at The Alligator, but the Herald is no different. Another important lesson.

At The Miami Herald I was given the opportunities to work on projects on my own and in a team. I was able to help people tell stories online. I got to write a little bit. I was even given point on a huge project: building a new Flash package for a video project in AS3.

My internship is over, and I’m starting a new life in New York City. It’s exciting and scary, but with my experience and the people who believe in me, I know I can make it all come together.


The NYC Experiment

Well, the adventure has begun. Today I made it from Miami to Fort Myers, where Kyle has been staying.

The truck is loaded, the cats are (slowly) getting acquainted, and we’re wrapping up the final details before heading out tomorrow morning.

You can follow our adventures at “Sink, Florida, Sink.” (Look up the lyrics, it’s an Against Me! song.)


Journalism is about adventure – NYC edition

This weekend a friend and I will be moving to New York City.

Though the truck and hotels are reserved, we have no place to live and no permanent jobs. (We do have appointments in both areas immediately following our arrival to the city.)

We’ve both lived in Florida for most of our lives. We are, as all other journos, negatively affected by the sucking wound in the journalism industry.

The obvious solution was to pool our resources and head to journalism mecca.

Risky, stupid, ballsy, whatever.

To my mind, this is what journalism is all about. One thing isn’t working, go balls to the wall and try something new. It’s the perfect way to force both of us to strengthen our weaknesses, branch out, and gain that all-important experience.

We’ll be blogging about our trip at an as yet unknown location. I’ll post that as soon as we get it together.

Meanwhile, freelance writing and web work, New York and northern New Jersey papers, beware the onslaught of cover letters!