Megan Taylor

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

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IRE Django Bootcamp

Today through Sunday I’ll be attending the 2008 IRE Conference in Miami. Today I’m locked in a room with about 10 others being sprayed with the firehose of Django.

I’ve played with Django a bit before, but now we’re getting serious. I’ve got my local Django session running and am poking around while Matt Waite, Aron Pilhofer and Chase Davis break us down and rebuild us in the image of Adrian Holovaty or Derek Willis.

This morning we went over the concepts behind Web frameworks and Django, looked at the code behind a homicide database and set up the local administration page. This afternoon we’ll be going over each type of file necessary to build a Web application in Django.

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Google Maps update

For the last month or so I’ve been taking a really in-depth look at the Google Maps API. Partly out of my own curiosity, and partly as an individual project for the online capstone course at UF.

I’ve learned some really cool things along the way. How to work with information flowing between a viewer and the server, for instance. I’ve also learned more about javascript and PHP.

One bad thing though: Google Maps tend to fail when you need to plot more than 200 locations. Ken Schwencke and I found this out when we tried to plot over 800 Gainesville restaurants with their inspection reports from an XML file. We’re still looking for a solution. (We’ve basically parsed a CSV file with python and gotten it to feed into an XML file which is being fed into the map…now I’m hungry.)

We wanted to integrate restaurant reviews using the Yelp API, but the requests are restricted to only 20 businesses, so we’re working on our own review backend.

For my class project, I’m building a map with multiple layers, like crime, alcohol licenses, and restaurant inspections, that can be toggled to show only the information a viewer wants to see. Or all of it at once. It’ll be on a small scale, just as a proof of concept. But still pretty cool.

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Project Updates: Django

After 2 frustrating months, I finally got Django up and running on my laptop. I could have had an easier time installing it on my Windoze machine, but I’m not home very much, so I wouldn’t have time to play with it.

Ken Schwencke, whose help was instrumental in finally get Django to work, and I have been working through the tutorials on the Django project Web site. It’s time to buy some python programming books.

Ken is a few steps ahead of me, having already written a python script to parse a Twitter friends feed so it can be printed out in plan text. (We discovered GeekTool recently, and have been experimenting with getting all kinds of data printed to the desktop.)

I’m really excited about learning how to use Django and python to build new web projects.

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Falling in love with blogging again

Zac Echola reminded me yesterday what this blog is about and why I started it.

  • 1. A networking blog should be a living document of your professional self. You should stay focused on topics that matter to people who may hire you. You should start reading blogs from people in your field.
  • 2. When someone makes you think, you should think out loud on your site. Have a conversation with others. Email people questions. Chat with them on twitter. Get to know people. Working a blog isn’t much different than working a room at a conference. Stay focused.
  • 3. Show off your work. When you do something good, show it off. Don’t be bashful.
  • 4. SEO the crap out of yourself.
  • 5. Seize every opportunity you can.
  • 6. Always remember that there’s a real human being on the other side of the machine.

I’ve been really bad at updating lately, and I’m going to work hard to fix that, starting with a bunch of updates on what I’ve been doing lately. I think short posts are preferred, so I’ll split things up. Keep an eye out for stuff on Twitter, Google Maps, Django and more.

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Even a match is better than whistling in the dark

A lot of people tell me I’m really good at this Web stuff. Yea, I’m a geek. I love to program and play and diddle around with technology, especially if it can be made useful.

But I’ve really only had 2 years of this. I fell in love with journalism late in my sophomore year. I’m the managing editor for the Web site of a student-run paper and I’m making it all up as I go along.

OK, I spend hours every day scanning blogs, newspapers, Twitter and other Web sites learning as much as I can about this thing called online journalism. For me, there is no ivory.

But rarely do I get a chance to sit down with someone more experienced than I and discuss what I’m doing and how I should be doing it differently. (Maybe that’s a new direction to take this blog in?)

Last week, the Journalism Advisory Council sat down for lunch with us budding journos. It was a really cool experience.

I talked to one member about data potential for B2B magazines.

Another responded to my questions about the Web site by listing the things they do and then shoving me into a conversation with someone else.

I discussed eye-tracking studies and the difference between print and Web design, fairly eloquently for someone who can’t…well, I can design my way out of a paper bag, but it’s not one of my strengths.

Another member wanted to look at The Independent Florida Alligator’s Web site. My baby. No sooner had the site loaded than suggestions for improvements were being made.

Yes, we need to label our multimedia so that readers know what’s what. Yes, we should be publishing online as soon as we know something. Yes, I need to make Opinions, Sports and Avenue headlines as Web-friendly as the News heds have become. Yep, that event on the calendar shouldn’t be labeled TBA, it’s an all day event. Must fix the PHP.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

As soon as school is back in session, I’m going to find some unofficial guidance. The print managing editor and the editor go over the paper with one of the professors once a week. The Web site needs similar help. (Mindy, Dave, you up for this?) And I’m going to make sure the guidance continues, because one simple conversation can change so much.

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Project updates

I know I haven’t been posting much lately, but I’ve been completely swamped.

Thanks to Matt Waite’s brilliance and patience, I got Django installed on my MacBook. I haven’t actually done much more than order the book and start reading through the tutorial and documentation, but I’m really excited to start learning. Right now I’m stuck trying to get MySQL onto the laptop. I’m Terminal-retarded, so this is getting frustrating. Once I get that up and running, I’ll be diving into a Django-driven class project.

My independent study project has advanced to the data cleaning stage. I’m still gathering the last bits in, but I started cleaning and organizing and staring blankly at numbers.

Life at The Alligator isn’t particularly impressive lately. We’re still mostly fixing. I slapped this little map of upcoming Gainesville shows together last week. Then I had to spend 3 hours trying to get it to work with the publishing system. It’s still kind of broken. But on the bright side, Ken Schwencke, a journalism student who is several levels beyond my programming abilities, has joined my staff.

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Applied Interactive Newspapers

The online capstone course, Applied Interactive Newspapers, is built to work like an internship.

There are 6 students in the class this semester. Each of us is responsible for pulling in 7 stories each week, from The New York Times or AP wire.

These stories are published on Newszine, the Interactive Media Lab’s news Web site.

Recently, in addition to the 7 stories, we were assigned a multimedia requirement. Each week, 2 Soundslides and 2 videos will be published to the site along with our stories, with labor divided among the staff.

It was my turn to do a video this week. I chose to do a video tutorial for using Soundslides. I wrote out my script and talked to my partner, Matt Gonzalez, about the shots. We set the camera up and also set the editing computer up for screen-casting.

Then I did my thing. I’m not particularly pleased with the outcome. I get massive stage fright as soon as the camera’s watching, even though I’m only on the screen for a few seconds.

But I learned a lot from this. I should have run through my actions a few times before I did it for the camera. It also could have done with a little more editing.

In any case, I’m learning a lot about video and editing, so by the time I graduate I should be pretty good at this.

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Things to learn at The Alligator

I’ve been working at The Independent Florida Alligator since the beginning of the summer. And I’ve learned a lot about the Web, news, multimedia, design, and programming.

Perhaps the most important area in which I’ve grown is how I deal with others on a day-to-day basis.

I have a pretty short fuse. I get frustrated easily, I have a big mouth, I love to complain. I curse at the computer regularly and will talk to anyone for hours about how much I despise our content management system. I spend way to much time in front of a computer, so I can be a little socially handicapped.

That’s no excuse. Coming from a manager, the people I work with don’t take all this as just blowing steam. It makes them more reluctant to work online. It keeps them from suggesting new projects because they don’t know how far we can push the limitations of the CMS.

So I’m learning, slowly, about diplomacy and silence and waiting until I’m alone to scream and tear my hair out. It’s really hard. But worth the effort. The less I kvetch, the more people wander past my desk and ask what I’m doing for such-and-such an article.

It’s important for online journalists to be visible and positive about what they do.

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First week of the last semester

I survived. Again.

As usual, the first week of school was accompanied by lack of sleep and an increase in Mountain Dew purchases.

I find myself in a position to look forward to a time beyond school; I will graduate at the end of this semester. As I said to several people during the week: “I look forward to a time when I’m only doing one job.” Juggling the roles of student and employee, especially with multiple points of employment, is more tiring than spending the same amount of time on one area.

This semester I am taking an independent study on Computer-Assisted Reporting. I blogged about this last week, but to recap briefly: I will be learning how to find, clean and analyze data. At the end of the semester I will produce a data-driven story package.

I’m also taking the online capstone for the journalism program at UF. This class will focus on interaction with a CMS and producing video, as well as an independent project (I am hoping to start working with Django here). And just to get past the part-time student level, I am also taking a professional practice class (a.k.a. how to get a job, negotiate salary, etc.)

While I am continuing as Managing Editor at The Independent Florida Alligator, my title is not the only difference from last semester. (We changed New Media to Online.) Many people this semester are new either to The Alligator or to their positions. Although we got off to a rocky start, I think everyone is becoming acclimated and it can only get better. As for the online staff, two out of the three are back, and a total of nine responded to a call for more staff members. This is the most interest that has been shown in a long time.

I am also continuing to update the Citizen Access Project Web site, as well as preparing a newer incarnation for launch. Over the break I started working at the Admissions office at UF, recoding their Web site.

Just writing about my different responsibilities makes me look forward to May. But I know I’ll enjoy every minute that I’m learning, creating or teaching something.

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SNDBoston: Making Data Webby

with Adrian Holovaty! This is the highlight for me, since my background is more programming and I’m defenitely a huge geek. Seeing Adrian speak was the deciding factor in coming to SND.

How to take data and make it efficient in terms of how the hypertext is laid out. Example: Wikipedia = Serendipity

Journalists are essentially collectors of data.

Rant #1 No serendipity in online journalism. Bullshit!
Data browseability: people want it and expect it. (IMDB, Amazon.com)

Serendipity increases stickiness and usefulness.

It all starts with structure. Have a structured list of data (facts) like an Excel spreadsheet. Journalists take clean data and turn it into a story. Computer programs can’t read the story. News orgs have the infrastructure to collect data, edit and verify the data and get the data to people. But they don’t leverage the data!

Lesson #1 Structure your data
Everything has structure. Sports. Obits. Even photos: subject, photographer, where, when, camera, size, colors (Flickr)

After the structure, the easy part.

Lesson #2 Give your data “the treatment”
Example: crime data
Step 1: lists fields (date, time, type, address, location, arrests, case number)
Step 2: key concepts (what data is useful? date, time, type, address, location)
Step 3: make breakdowns (list all possible values for each field)
Step 4: make list pages (pages for each value in each field)
Step 5: detail pages (pages for each crime)

Things to note
– Permalinks for concepts (distinct URL) linkability/bookmarkability
– SEO
– Serendipity

Example sites: chicagocrime.org, Faces of the Fallen, Video Game Reviews, Mixed Messages.