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March 01 2012

Profile of the Data Journalist: The Elections Developer

Around the globe, the bond between data and journalism is growing stronger. In an age of big data, the growing importance of data journalism lies in the ability of its practitioners to provide context, clarity and, perhaps most important, find truth in the expanding amount of digital content in the world.

To learn more about the people who are doing this work and, in some cases, building the newsroom stack for the 21st century, I conducted a series of email interviews during the 2012 NICAR Conference.

Derek Willis (@derekwillis) is a news developer based in New York City. Our interview follows.

Where do you work now? What is a day in your life like?

I work for The New York Times as a developer in the Interactive News Technologies group. A day in my work life usually includes building or improving web applications relating to politics, elections and Congress, although I also get the chance to branch out to do other things. Since elections are such an important subject, I try to think of ways to collect information we might want to display and of ways to get that data in front of readers in an intelligent and creative manner.

How did you get started in data journalism? Did you get any special degrees or certificates?

No, I started working with databases in graduate school at the University of Florida (I left for a job before finishing my master's degree). I had an assistantship at an environmental occupations training center and part of my responsibilities was to maintain the mailing list database. And I just took to it - I really enjoyed working with data, and once I found Investigative Reporters & Editors, things just took off for me.

Did you have any mentors? Who? What were the most important resources they shared with you?

A ton of mentors, mostly met through IRE but also people at my first newspaper job at The Palm Beach Post. A researcher there, Michelle Quigley, taught me how to find information online and how sometimes you might need to take an indirect route to locating the stuff you want. Kinsey Wilson, now the chief content officer at NPR, hired me at Congressional Quarterly and constantly challenged me to think bigger about data and the news. And my current and former colleagues at The Times and The Washington Post are an incredible source of advice, counsel and inspiration.

What does your personal data journalism "stack" look like? What tools could you not live without?

It's pretty basic: spreadsheets, databases (MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQLite) and a programming language like Python or, these days, Ruby. I've been lucky to find excellent tools in the Ruby world, such as the Remote Table gem by Brighter Planet, and a host of others. I like PostGIS for mapping stuff.

What data journalism project are you the most proud of working on or creating?

I'm really proud of the elections work at The Times, but can't take credit for how good it looks. A project called Toxic Waters also was incredibly challenging and rewarding to work on, too. But my favorite might be the first one: the Congressional Votes Database that Adrian Holovaty, Alyson Hurt and I created at The Post in late 2005. It was a milestone for me and for The Post, and helped set the bar for what news organizations could do with data on the web.

Where do you turn to keep your skills updated or learn new things?

My colleagues are my first source. When you work with Jeremy Ashkenas, the author of the Backbone and Underscore Javascript libraries, you see and learn new things all the time. Our team is constantly bouncing new concepts around. I wish I had more time to learn new things; maybe after the elections!

Why are data journalism and "news apps" important, in the context of the contemporary digital environment for information?

A couple of reasons: one is that we live in an age where information is plentiful. Tools that can help distill and make sense of it are valuable. They save time and convey important insights. News organizations can't afford to cede that role. The second is that they really force you to think about how the reader/user is getting this information and why. I think news apps demand that you don't just build something because you like it; you build it so that others might find it useful.

This email interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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