Charmed, I’m sure


View from my hotel room of hotel’s above-ground parking garage. This will have to do as a placeholder until I can get a panoramic shot of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Also, I don’t build hotels or anything, but I feel like this might be an instance where large windows aren’t a plus.

BALTIMORE, MD.–This post comes all the way from Baltimore, Maryland, land of (reportedly) delicious Chesapeake blue crabs, one of the nation’s colonial port cities, and–as of right now–a hub of data journalism wizardry.

The so-called “Charm city” is host of this year’s NICAR conference–an intense four-day series of workshops and lectures aimed at helping professionals gain or sharpen computer-assisted reporting skills.

“Computer-assisted reporting” refers to an increasingly broad skill set that includes everything from data mining, analysis, mapping, interactives, and web-based application development. The common denominator among all those skills is that they are used to conceive, further or enrich journalistic storytelling.

Think: media-rich interactives found on or, comprehensive data sets compiled and then maximized for sharing through friendly-user interfaces on, in-depth, digital packages that highlight underserved demographics on

The annual conference brings together a diverse pack of journalists, web developers, designers, and general techies, for what I’m told is quite possibly the dorkiest convention held by a professional journalism organization. And thanks to a scholarship from said journalism organization, IRE, and the Chicago Tribune Foundation, I get to be a part of the madness for the first time this year.

Full disclosure: I promise I wasn’t told to plug them, I’m just happy to do so on my own accord since 1. I couldn’t have afforded it on my own otherwise and 2. Baltimore has been on my list of U.S. cities to visit for a while now, so really, it’s a double win.

I haven’t had much time to see the sights, as evidenced by the picture of this blog post, but I’m definitely keeping busy. I kicked off my day bright and early with a telephone interview for a project I’m working on for the paper (still on that company clock!), before starting my CAR-filled day with a MYSQL refresher.

Then there were panels from everything on tracking illicit firearms, analyzing Census microdata (which I had no clue existed prior to today), a crash course on useful databases and tips for business investigations, and even a workshop specifically on investigating dams!

The dark horse of the day, and possibly my favorite panel, was the one using data to track illegal guns. Knowing very little about guns other than the fact that they are extremely politically polarizing and personally intimidating, the panel featured a really pragmatic look at how to go about investigating the trail of guns in your local area.

The toughest part of conferences in general is having to decide which panels or workshops to attend over another. The gun panel was something I hadn’t planned on attending, namely because I’m not a crime reporter, nor have I ever had a passion regarding firearms. There’s also an internal debate in my brain about whether I should attend more panels (which are good for generating and pursuing story ideas) or more hands-on training (which are good for developing the fundamentals of a skill that you continue to work on independently).

Either way, this conference has confronted me with a significant problem as I now want to dabble in just about everything. On a lighter note, I’ll be visiting Edgar Allen Poe’s house on Saturday. The former high school poet in me (yes, I know) is ecstatic.

Follow my sporadic tweets here: @jiejennyzou. Hoping to write more about larger themes in the conference and in data journalism later in the week.