There is an exchange that sometimes takes place, perfectly described by Beth Ashton, between those who use technology, and those who don’t. It goes like this:
Prospective data journalist: ‘I’d really like to learn how to do data journalism but I can’t do statistics!’
Data journalist: ‘Don’t let that put you off, I don’t know anything about numbers either, I’m a journalist, not a mathematician!’
Prospective data journalist: ‘But I can’t code, and it all looks so codey and complicated’
Data journalist: That’s fine, NONE OF US can code. None of us. Open angle bracket back slash End close angle bracket.
“These people are coding deniers,” argues Beth.
I think she’s on to something. Flash back to a week before Beth published that post: I was talking to Caroline Beavon about the realisation of just how hard-baked ‘coding’ was into my workflow:
- A basic understanding of RSS lies behind my ability to get regular updates from hundreds of sources
- I look at repetitiveness in my work and seek to automate it where I can
- I look at structure in information and use that to save time in accessing it
These are all logical responses to an environment with more information than a journalist can reasonably deal with, and I have developed many of them almost without realising.
They are responses as logical as deciding to use a pen to record information when human memory cannot store it reliably alone. Or deciding to learn shorthand when longhand writing cannot record reliably alone. Or deciding to use an audio recorder when that technology became available.
One of the things that makes us uniquely human is that we reach for technological supports – tools – to do our jobs better. The alphabet, of course, is a technology too.
But we do not argue that shorthand comes easy, or that audio recorders can be time consuming, or that learning to use a pen takes time.
So: ‘coding’ – whether you call it RSS, or automation, or pattern recognition – needs to be learned. It might seem invisible to those of us who’ve built our work patterns around it – just as the alphabet seems invisible once you’ve learned it. But, like the alphabet, it is a technology all the same.
But secondly – and more importantly – for this to happen as a profession we need to acknowledge that ‘coding’ is a skill that has become as central to working effectively in journalism as using shorthand, the pen, or the alphabet.
I don’t say ‘will be central’ but ‘has become‘. There is too much information, moving too fast, to continue to work with the old tools alone. From social networks to the quantified self; from RSS-enabled blogs to the open data movement; from facial recognition to verification, our old tools won’t do.
So I’m not going to be a coding denier. Coding is to digital information what shorthand was to spoken information. There, I’ve said it. Now, how can we do it better?