DataJConf Debrief

August 5, 2017 - by martin

DataJConf at UCD

A month ago we held the first European Data and Computational Journalism Conference in Dublin, Ireland. This is a long overdue post about that event.

The conference idea started as all good ideas do, in the pub and with a tweet. It was at a social event during ICWSM ‘16 where I was first introduced to Bahareh Heravi, a data journalism lecturer from UCD. We talked briefly about the things we’re doing in Cardiff with the CompDJ MSc, and she spoke about her plans to introduce something similar in Dublin. A long time passed, and she got in touch over Twitter to ask if I was interested in organising a conference with her, to cover Data and Computational Journalism. Always keen to say yes to things that aren’t technically part of my day-to-day job and that will cause me a lot of work, I jumped straight in, dragging m’colleague Glyn along for the ride.

We spent several weeks having Skype calls to discuss and plan the conference, getting a website together, releasing the call for papers, organising the programme committee, managing the reviews, selecting talks, creating the programme, and then getting tickets on sale for the conference. It was a bit of a mad rush, but by June we were starting to see tickets sold, and had an excellent line up of speakers for the day. All I had to do then was sit back and wait to see if people turned up. Bahareh had less of an easy time, as she was hosting the thing, so spent many hundreds of hours organising the logistics of the event, the catering, lanyards, bags, souvenirs and all the other things that go into making a successful conference - a huge amount of work for which we are truly grateful!

When we initially spoke about the conference, we wanted to make sure we had a mix of industry and academia, and that it really was a mix. Bahareh had had a disappointing time at another DataJ conference where an academic track was included, but kept totally separate from the industry track, which resulted in a lack of discussion between the two groups of participants. This was something we were determined to avoid at all costs. We were also unsure about whether there was an appetite for this sort of conference. Our initial aim was that if we had about 50 people turn up, we’d count it as a success. In the end, we had just over 100 people through the doors, which was amazing, and there was a real mix of people from academia and industry. There was a diverse set of talks, on a range of topics, and it was really nice to see industry types asking questions of the academics, and vice versa. We also avoided the dreaded ‘all-male’ lineup, with a majority of talks being given by females. The proceedings from the conference are now available, if you’re interested.

The conference was followed by a couple of half-day workshops: an introduction to Data Journalism, and an Unconference, both of which were received very well.

All in all, a really successful event. I met a lot of interesting people and made some good contacts for the future. There were a lot of interesting discussions and I came home full of ideas for things to introduce within our teaching and research.

It was such a good time, we’re doing it all over again. DataJConf 2018 will be held here in Cardiff. So I guess this time it’ll be Glyn’s turn to do all the running around organising things…

CompDJ Team Selfie!

Post-Graduation Thoughts

August 4, 2017 - by martin

Last month I took part in my first graduation ceremony as part of the academic procession. This is the bit where staff members from the school(s) that are graduating get dressed up in their silly robes, ‘process’ into the graduation ceremony, and sit on stage for an hour or so clapping as all their students stride across the stage to shake the VC’s hand and graduate from their degree.

It’s a lot of fun, because who doesn’t like dressing up in silly robes and a hat? But its also good for the students, I think it shows them that we genuinely care about the fact they’re graduating, and it’s nice for them to see familiar faces up there on the stage celebrating their hard work. I know I enjoyed that part of my own graduation, so I’m happy now to be able to take part myself. I actually went to two ceremonies this year; the ceremony for the School of Computer Science & Informatics, and the ceremony for the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

In both ceremonies I was really happy to see a number of students that I know and have taught. In the COMSC ceremony there were a lot of MSc students from the various programmes from my second year of lecturing the Web Apps and the Visualisation modules. There were also a couple of students whose dissertation projects I supervised, and a few undergraduates who I’ve worked with on summer projects. Then in the JOMEC ceremony this was the first year that we’ve had students from the MSc in Computational Journalism attend the graduation ceremony, which was really nice. I had a nice feeling of pride as they read out the name of the degree programme I helped create, then more as the students strode across the stage.

It’s really pleasing to see students you’ve taught start making their way in the world. Even more so when you see them creating great work and doing interesting things in ‘the Industry’. Take one of our first students Charles, who’s followed a successful stint at Trinity Mirror with a move to go push things forward at The Bureau Local. Or one of his colleagues Nikita, who’s working at one of the first data journalism outfits in India. Or last year’s grad Niko, who after a successful Google News Lab fellowship at The Guardian last year is now working on their vis team. Even this year’s students are at it before they’ve even finished: Jess is busy on a GNL fellowship for Trinity Mirror, Laura is on an internship at The Telegraph and Haluka is doing the same at The Financial Times. Four of this year’s students have job offers already, with Rae having left for the US to go run the Springfield bureau of The Daily Line.

It’s a bit weird, knowing that a few years ago we had an idea that we needed a course to train people to do a thing, and now there are people out there doing just that thing. It’s exciting, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.

Thoughts from the CEI Learning & Teaching Conference 2017

July 5, 2017 - by martin

Yesterday was the annual ‘Learning & Teaching Conference’ of the Cardiff University Centre for Education Innovation. This year the theme was ‘To Tech or not to Tech, is that the Question?’. It’s the first time I’ve attended this conference, and I thought I’d get some of my thoughts from the day down in pixels.

(Reading this back later, I realise what a tangent this went on. From “I’m going to review #CUCEI17” to “there are some teachers out there that could do better but I don’t know how to help them”. That was a quite a diversion, for which I apologise. For an actual summary of the conference there’s a great storify of the main discussions during the conference which I think sums it all up very nicely.)

It was a very interesting and at times thought-provoking conference. I felt the main thematic question was solved fairly early on, perhaps even before we entered the room. I think most of us realise it’s not about the tech, it’s about the teaching, and the tech is just one tool in our toolkit that helps us do that effectively. The answer to the question is therefore ‘no’ and the real question is: ‘what tech and how much?’.

The keynote was an interesting look at how technology can be embraced by a whole institution, but I think what really caught my attention during this talk (with one eye on our new building with MATHS) was the lecture theatres that are arranged for group work:

Learning Spaces

How fantastic would it be able to teach in that space - you could do so many activities beyond just standing at the front ‘lecturing’. I’m becoming more and more vehement in my belief that a traditional ‘didactic’ lecture is the wrong way to teach most topics in Computer Science, and is actually harmful to our student’s ability to learn and think independently. Breaking the link between the idea of a ‘lecture theatre’ and a ‘lecture’ would be a good start towards changing the way both staff and students think about these things we call ‘lectures’. One of the frequent comments I’ve heard (and apologies to whoever said it as I can’t remember who it was - possibly Vince or Dafydd) is “wouldn’t it be great to have lecture theatres that don’t have a ‘front’”. I can’t agree more.

But of course, this, a lecture theatre with a funky design, isn’t technology. Yes, the group tables can be tech-enabled, with power and interactive displays and all sorts of other gadgets and gizmos, but really we’re just talking here about rethinking our way of teaching to a more interactive, collaborative (and collectivist?) paradigm.

This is where I think the problem comes in. Show a lecture theatre like that to a room full of academics who have all managed to carve out the time to attend a conference on education innovation and of course they’re all going to start thinking ‘Wow, the things I could do with that’. We’re the same people who are already trying to innovate in our teaching. We used lecture capture as soon as they put webcams in our classrooms (or even before). We’ve tried out all the polls and live Q&A systems during lectures. We’re creating long-lasting communities for our students in Slack, asking them to text in questions during lectures, and open-sourcing our lecture materials. We’ve already moved past an “I’ll stand at the front and talk, you sit there and listen” model of teaching. Some have stopped ‘lecturing’ entirely, are fully committed to a flipped learning model and now spend all our contact time on interacting with students, working on activities or problems, and really delivering ‘value’. The conference in this regard was preaching to the choir. Yes, it was helping those of us keen on innovation to discover new tools for our toolkit, talk to other like-minded teachers, and to validate our own approaches, but it wasn’t really attempting to answer the big problem in our own work: How do we convince everyone else to change with us?

Because the big problem isn’t with the people who are trying to innovate. The problem is the academic who doesn’t want to do any of that stuff. The academic who thinks “well, I learnt through traditional lectures, so that’ll be fine for all these students”. I actually had a colleague say to me the other day “I learnt from a book, so I don’t need to make videos for my students. They can just read the book like me”. They generally didn’t realise the benefits that can be had by moving the passive learning to non-contact time and creating an active learning environment within their lectures.

We have stuffed universities with the kind of academics who don’t realise that they’re there because they’re the sort of academically minded studious individual who could have taught themselves off some notes scribbled on the underside of a table if they had to. Anyone who’s dragged themselves through three years of undergraduate education, a year of masters, three to five years of a PhD, and a probable multitude of short-term RA contracts on many different topics before finally reaching the relative stability of a lectureship is going to be the kind of person who can learn things themselves and quickly in whatever circumstance. They don’t know what it is to be the person who struggles in class, or who finds things difficult, or who just doesn’t respond well to a fifty minute ‘lecture’.

We have a situation where people who have no difficulty in learning are having to teach.

And I find that that means they have no desire to try to do things differently, because the way they’re doing things “worked for them”. So how do we communicate to these individuals that actually ‘it worked for me’ is not a valid argument. How do we show them that there is a better way? That they can actually engage with students in a more meaningful fashion? How do we make them understand that

Just reading from a fucking powerpoint is not education.

Those are the questions I want answered next.

Catching a Bug

June 12, 2017 - by martin

I’m doing some data analysis, and I just caught a showstopper of a bug. Want to see it? Here’s the code as it was before:

new_index = [LIKERT[value] for value in LIKERT.keys() if value in data_counts.index]

and here’s a simple fix for the code:

new_index = [LIKERT[value] for value in data_counts.index]

Doesn’t look like much of a problem, but it completely changed the way my data was analysed. Both lines are creating a new index for a pandas dataframe. I have a dataframe that is indexed:

[0.0, 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0]

and I want to replace the index with the correct names from a likert scale that these values refer to:

['N/A', 'Disagree Strongly', 'Disagree', 'Neither Agree nor Disagree', 'Agree', 'Agree Strongly']

so I create a dictionary that maps from keys in the first index, to values for the new index:

    0.0: 'N/A',
    1.0: 'Disagree Strongly',
    2.0: 'Disagree',
    3.0: 'Neither Agree nor Disagree',
    4.0: 'Agree',
    5.0: 'Agree Strongly'

I then do a little list comprehension that adds the correct new value to the new index, if it’s key is in the old index. If the key isn’t there, it gets skipped:

new_index = [LIKERT[value] for value in LIKERT.keys() if value in data_counts.index]

All fine, right? Sure, if the index is always in numerical order. Which it isn’t. Using this code, if the index is in the wrong order, you can get ‘5’ being replaced with ‘Disagree Strongly’ (or any of the values other than ‘Agree Strongly’) and suddenly your analysis is completely wrong.

The second line fixes this by looping through the index, not the dictionary, and so creates the new index in the correct order.

A better fix is actually to use the .rename() function, which can rename the index of a dataframe (or the column names) using a dictionary as a lookup, like so:

data.rename(index=LIKERT, inplace=True)

Any values present in the index but not in the lookup are left alone, and values in the lookup but not in the index are ignored, and the result is exactly what I need, all my ‘5s’ replaced with ‘Agree Strongly’ and so on.

So I guess the lesson learnt here is RTFM, and don’t try to be clever and re-invent functionality that already exists.

Weeknotes - 29th May 2017

June 4, 2017 - by martin

Monday 29th May


Tuesday 30th May


Finished my visualisation coursework marking today. Generally really good quality across the board, and a really enjoyable set of work to mark. As time goes on, I’m liking this visualisation course more and more. It’s fun to teach as it’s an interesting and quite subjective field, which is not usual in a ‘normal’ Computer Science course. There’s lots of scope for discussion and argument and plenty of chances for students to really get stuck into some data analysis and communication and really show off their skills. I get the feeling the mark distribution skewed a little higher than last year, but I haven’t checked that yet.

Also met with the last student who has expressed an interest in our CUROP project for this summer, so we’ll be able to make a decision on that soon and get that project rolling. I also met with another of our CompDJ students about their dissertation project - they’re looking to build a bot that will write articles automatically about particular topics. A very ambitious project, but one that looks to be really interesting.

The other major task on Tuesday was a Skype call with the rest of the organising committee of DataJConf to finalise the accepted talks and sort out the schedule. We had a really great set of submissions, with a good mix from industry and academia. Our programme committee did a great job of reviewing them, so it was a fairly simple task to conduct a quick meta-review of the papers, decide where our cut-off point is and then take the top 8 papers forward to the conference. Sadly the fact that we’re only one-day main track this year meant we had to lose some very good submissions, but I’m hopeful those authors will still come along and pitch their discussion topics for the Unconference on the day after DataJConf (and we invited them to in their notification emails). The schedule is now online, and it looks like it’s going to be a really good day. Tickets are selling, and the attendee numbers are ticking up. We were supposed to make a decision this week on which room to go for, the big room or the bigger room, but we put that off to see how numbers look in a weeks time. It’s a bit of a gamble as there’s always a chance that if we need to switch from the room we already have booked the other room will be unavailable by the time we make our minds up, but who doesn’t like a bit of risk in their conference planning?

Wednesday 31st May

A day in which very little was accomplished towards my own goals, but which had to be done. Most of the morning was taken up with a meeting with my counterpart in undergraduate operations, the school manager, and various faces from college about our generally low survey response rates in the School, and how we might do better at communicating with students to foster a culture that encourages these response rates to improve. One of the key points we came up with was that while we’re very good at listening to students as a school, and then acting upon their feedback, we’re pretty rubbish at communicating those actions and changes back to the students. The outcome of this discussion was a need to empower the operations teams for postgrads and undergrads to do more with the various surveys and module feedback questionnaires, to bring actions and recommendations to the teaching and learning quality committee and boards of studies, and to work with the comms team to make sure students know that what they tell us is listened to and acted upon, and is therefore quite important. Essentially it’s about a culture change within the school, and we all know how easy that is, right…

Also had some interesting discussions with my Head of School today about a number of projects I’ve got going on at the moment. I already wrote about trying to coordinate the large number of new programme / programme change approvals that we have happening within the school, but we also discussed a couple of other projects. One, looking at end-of-module feedback has been going on for a while but is close to being ready for launch. The other was around module-review, and how I want to improve that process by moving to a git based approach, which will allow better oversight and review of module changes and data collection. I’ll talk more about that as the project develops.

At lunchtime we had our first official meeting with Stuart, our third-year student who is working with us for the summer on our Education Innovation chatbot project. He seems to have really hit the ground running and is getting stuck in to building code and designing solutions. Really great to see, and it looks highly likely that we’re going to have something working to test with students in the Autumn.

The afternoon was taken up with an Academic Approval Event in the School of Modern Languages. I was on the panel as the internal member from outside the college. It’s the second approval event I’ve done, and was a fairly pleasant experience. The programme we were looking at was well thought out, and would clearly be a benefit to the school in question. There were the usual typos and small inconsistencies in the documentation, and we had some recommendations that might improve the student experience, particularly around assessment, where there were a lot of essays that might be replaced with some more interesting types of assessment. Overall though it looks good, and I hope they make a success of it.

While all that was going on, we were hosting a hackday over in Bute, a collaboration with The Bureau Local. A team came over from The Bristol Cable and along with our students spent the day looking at voter numbers within local constituencies. I wrote a tiny write up over at the CompDJ blog, but I was a bit annoyed I couldn’t get more involved, what with everything else that was going on yesterday. Hopefully I’ll be able to get stuck in at the next one, as I’m sure this wont be the last hackday type event the Bureau organises.

Thursday 1st June

Today was spent interviewing students for another of our summer projects, looking at Journalism Education. We’ve been carrying out a data collection experiment since last summer looking at the skill requirements of the media industry as exposed through job advertising and mailing list postings, and now we’re looking to back that up through a qualitative analysis of journalism school educators and their syllabi. We had 12 students from a range of schools express an interest in working on this project with us, and choosing between them is a very hard task indeed. Luckily m’colleague is leading this project, so most of that particular burden falls on him. Hopefully we’ll have someone in place very soon and we can get the third of our summer projects up and running.

Friday 2nd June


Sunday 4th June

My ‘Friday’ was spent working on some analysis of module evaluation feedback. As I mentioned in Tuesday’s notes, we need to do more and better with the feedback given to us by students. I’ve been working for a while on creating some simple dashboards that transform the quite poor output of the module evaluation system into something that is firstly a little more usable by module leaders, but that also looks more like the survey dashboards (NSS, PTES, etc) that we are used to dealing with.

Module Evaluation Dashboards - WiP

The idea is that consistency between the types of visualisations and analysis used will reduce the cognitive burden when trying to assess the feedback and compare across surveys. I’m now starting to put together a system that will create individual dashboards for lecturers and module leaders, and that will also allow comparison between modules on the various programmes and years of our degree schemes, and allow comparison to the school as a whole. With any luck I’ll be able to present this at the next TLAQC and we can start to deliver these to lecturers and operations teams to help them understand what the students are telling them. Today was mostly refactoring my existing analysis code that takes the raw survey data and converts it into percent agree/disagree scores as per the NSS dashboards, and collects the data across the different groupings (years/programmes) of modules.