In Review: SRCCON 2016

Samantha Hankins, product designer with the Coral Project, and Julia Smith at SRCCON 2016.
Samantha Hankins, product designer with the Coral Project, and Julia Smith attending SRCCON 2016.

It's been a good summer for journalism conferences. This is the first of some session reviews and resource roundups from these events.

SRCCON 2016, OpenNews’ third annual gathering of newsroom technologists and data journalists, was held in Portland during the last week of July. This was my second time attending the event, which is organized as a hands-on unconference. Sessions tend to be conversational and participatory, with lots of brainstorming, wireframing, and knowledge-sharing. And although most participants are tech savvy, many sessions are more about people than code – focusing on newsroom culture and processes rather than technical tips and tricks.

The following are a few of the sessions I especially enjoyed.

Covering police shootings (and other events) when the data is terrible

Steven Rich and Aaron Williams facilitated this session about the Washington Post’s methods for gathering their own data on U.S. police shootings. Since the government dataset on the topic is so incomplete, the Post had do all the legwork themselves – from tracking down local news sources and police records to building its own database and Django admin panel to manage each incident and track its fact checking status. This piece is the public-facing result of their efforts.

It was really great to get a glimpse behind the scenes into their process for collecting and cataloging this data. They’ve gathered a great deal of information that the public doesn’t get to see, and it was interesting to learn just how manual the process is – individual reporters calling every police department and victims’ families to verify information, etc.

The session ended with a question about maintainability: Will the Post be able to continue collecting this data this rigorously for years to come? This is a really important question in data reporting. When information is collected for a specific investigation or a particular report, what happens to the process after the original story is published? Can newsrooms afford to continue dedicating resources to maintaining ongoing data collection? How much should newsrooms be accountable for collecting this information – shouldn’t this be the government’s responsibility?

Designing brands at scale

This was a fun one. Vox Media’s Georgia Cowley and Josh Laincz facilitated this session, which was all about redesigning a brand from concept to completion. The first activity was a case study on Vox’s rebrand for Curbed, a site dedicated to place – homes, neighborhoods, and cities. They explained how the redesign process started with a concept, “creating spaces,” which evolved into a metaphor, “a room,” which then morphed into the abstract design elements of Curbed’s brand:

The header graphic from

Flat geometric shapes angled in such a way to evoke walls and corners and shadow.

Georgia and Josh guided the group through one more case study on the design system used to develop the brand for the 1968 Olympics.

For the rest of the session, the participants split into groups and created our own concepts for a theoretical “Summer Olympics in Portland” using the scalable design methods in discussion.

Accessibility in media

Accessibility is a topic I love to see covered, so I was excited to find a packed room for this session facilitated by John Burn-Murdoch and Joanna Kao of the Financial Times. We discussed the considerations and challenges we all encounter while striving to create accessible news products – and we looked at these topics not only from a developer’s standpoint, but also from the lens of designers, product managers, and social media specialists. It was one of the more productive sessions, and the facilitators prepared a great tip sheet on the subject. Also check out the notes and live transcript from the session.

(And for more tips on building accessible and mobile-friendly interactives, take a look at my Data Viz for All resources, originally compiled for SRCCON 2015.)

What ideas can we borrow from the design world to solve news design problems?

This session led participants through a few of 18F’s design methods and illustrated how they can help solve different types of news product and project management problems. The session touched on three different areas in journalism tech – product development, editorial projects, and internal tools and operations. Participants chose one of those three areas and then completed a modified feature dot-voting exercise as we discussed the common problems we face while working on these projects. The outcome of that exercise was recorded in the session notes.

Give and Receive: Can we strengthen our community through remote mentorship and office hours?

I led this session, which was focused on brainstorming ways to better facilitate connections between current members of the journalism-tech community and individuals who may not have the consistent access to the wider network. The discussion was framed around the idea of “office hours,” but it was meant to be a broader reimagining of what that a relationship between individuals could look like.

The idea for this conversation came out of this year’s SNDMakes event in San Francisco, where my team tackled a similar question and developed a prototype that would pair individuals for online video feedback sessions. The thought process behind the prototype was very interesting to me, and I was really curious what other news nerds might dream up given the same parameters.

The session started with a roundtable discussion about different users’ needs when it comes to staying connected with the community – the needs of the person who might want help or feedback, and the needs of the person providing it – and then the second half of the session was a design exercise to create an ideal workflow that would meet those needs.

The whiteboard
The whiteboard

An interesting idea born from one group’s design exercise was a slackbot that solves “the pin-drop problem” – where someone may want to ask a question or get feedback about something, but they don’t want to interrupt anyone else or potentially ask a “dumb” question in front of multiple people. So this slackbot would take an anonymized question and add it to a queue of questions to be released only during a specified office hour, which is when the host would answer. The group liked that this concept would allow you to ask the question at the moment you’re stuck instead of during the office hour (when it’s easy to forget what you hoped to ask).

I thought the session went pretty well, as a whole, thanks to all the participants!

And the same could be said for SRCCON in general – OpenNews does a truly fantastic job creating an engaging and inclusive event, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of it.