Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Python & PyLadies

It takes a lot of data to build the investigative and multimedia projects we deliver here at the Workshop. So naturally, we want to use the best possible methods to convey what we uncover.

That’s why we sent three summer staffers — Lydia Beyoud, Hilary Niles and Samantha Sunne — to a training session we helped coordinate last weekend: an introduction to the open-source programming language Python, through a training program geared specifically toward women.

The event, sponsored by DC PyLadies and DC Python, drew more than 25 aspiring programmers, with dozens more on the waiting list. The range of professional fields represented by attendees attests to the broad applications of code: journalism, social work, library science, archive management, gaming and public policy.

Knowledge is power, as the saying goes. And when today’s data sets and streams burst with millions of records that refresh in an instant, our job of turning that information into knowledge requires advanced new tools. This is why a language like Python is essential.

At the Workshop, our staff learned the basic vocabulary of Python and how it can be used to collect massive amounts of data from applications such as Twitter. With a few keystrokes, we were able to chart trending topics, the most recent tweets for a given user or keyword, and more. While some of these functions are easy to perform through Twitter itself, the ability to “scrape” the application allows journalists to analyze and report using massive amounts of raw data.

In addition to reporting advantages like these, there’s a deeper significance to the nature of last weekend’s training: As the name PyLadies suggests, it has to do with gender.

The Investigative Reporting Workshop’s office this summer is comprised of about 70 percent women. In most newsrooms, women make up 37 to 40 percent of the staff, according to a recent study citing both Bureau of Labor Statisics and an American Society of News Editors census.

In the tech world, the representation of women is only recently — and slowly — climbing back to up its peak of 37 percent in 1984. Part of what underlies this gender gap is a cultural divide. In a May 2012 article, Doug Gross of CNN described the environment at some tech companies as “something akin to your worst stereotype of a booze-soaked frat party.”

PyLadies, an international mentorship group, offers an antidote to such “brogrammer” (think “bro” + “programmer”) culture — a shift some women and, no doubt, some men would appreciate. We’re happy to have helped them find a venue at American University.

The organizers of the event, Jackie Kazil and Katie Cunningham, have plans to grow the DC group to reach a larger audience. With some luck, events like this will begin to grow organically nationwide.

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