When Associate Professor Fred Vallance-Jones started the King’s Summer School in Data Journalism back in 2008, his goal was to teach journalists the basic skills of using data to find and tell stories. While much has changed in the world of journalism since then, that goal has remained the same.
This summer, the data school will be held from June 27th to 30th and led by David McKie, an instructor in the King’s Journalism program. Vallance-Jones and McKie are long-time colleagues, having worked together on investigative and data journalism projects, including co-authoring The Data Journalist, a required text for the class.
Vallance-Jones and McKie keep the class small, with 15 participants total this year. They split each day into morning and afternoon sessions, covering necessary data journalism tools and resources over the span of eight hours. They make sure to keep up to date on the technology they teach and often draw upon data sets that are relevant to current events such as Covid numbers and salary information.
“You’re looking at data and you’re looking for patterns,” explains McKie. “And those patterns lead to ideas and those lead to stories. In an age where we are literally awash with data—there are open data portals, all levels of government, new datasets are being uploaded every day—if journalists do not know how to work with this information, then we’re really working every day with one proverbial hand tied behind our back.”
This year marks the third year the school will be held online. In 2020, despite many summer courses getting canceled or postponed, Vallance-Jones and McKie were determined to keep the data school running. They found themselves quickly preparing to teach online— something neither of them had done before.
“A lot of the things that we’ve ended up doing online [during the school year], like asynchronous teaching, we did during that data school, because we had to,” McKie explains. “It was a great dry run, and we were able to see what worked. What ended up working was putting together very tight instructional videos, sending them out beforehand, getting people to review them, basically doing homework. Then, when we came together as a group, essentially all we did was troubleshoot, and then set up the next section.”
McKie urges any journalist or student who has an interest in data to consider the course. The intensive week-long program has built quite a reputation for journalists across Canada during its 15 years.
“Some of the best-known journalists have taken the school,” he says. “Robyn Doolittle, for example…The work that she’s done on the power gap, taking a look at wage disparities between salaries, that’s using datasets we’ve used for taking a look at public sector salary data, and then mashing it up and comparing it to other datasets. These are the kinds of skills that we’ve taught year in and year out. It’s nice to see that they are being used in some outstanding journalism that’s being done right now.”
While the online approach has been successful, Vallance-Jones is eager to return to teaching in-person, hopefully next year.
“Halifax was a key part of doing it in the summer,” he explains. “It’s a slower time of year, the weather’s beautiful…it’s a fun place to be when you’re not in class. [Coming to Halifax] is a little bit of an adventure for people. If you hold something in a classroom at Carlton [for local journalists from Ottawa], which I’ve done with David in the past, it’s good. But when people are just coming to class from home and leaving at the end of the day, you lose that this is a special week. It just becomes going to class for a few hours.”