Screenshot of reporter David Fahrenthold’s notebook listing charities that Donald Trump claimed that he had given money to. Read how Fahrenthold’s data diaries are impacting The Washington Post’s campaign coverage of Trump.

Creating “Data Diaries” as a class exercise to understand data and use it for storytelling

It also helps you learn about your Student’s skills and interests

I first encountered the idea of keeping a “data diary” as a class activity when I took Ethan Zuckerman’s Future of News and Participatory Media course at the MIT Media Lab in 2015.

Ethan’s highly enjoyable and challenging style of socratic teaching mixed with weekly exercises and team assignments around relevant and pressing subjects for Journalism, Technology, Communities and Media, had become a must take course for many generations of Nieman fellows, and genius grad students from the Media Lab.

To make us think about our own media and news consumption behavior (Information Diet, Clay Johnson would say), the course started with one assignment: To create a Media Diary during a week, where you would track “all media you encountered (…) where it originated, whether it was news or entertainment media” and “present your diary, preferably in a way that offers summary and analysis of patterns you’ve discovered from keeping it”.

My diary, as you can see below, was nothing extraordinary. And yet, it provided me insight and made me conscious of how my browsing behavior had changed lately and why.

When my classmates showed and explain their own diaries one pattern arose: they were all different in form and substance. By watching how they approached the assignment and created the diary, I learned a lot about their trains of thought, professional and personal interests, levels of detail and diversity of skills. Much more than if we would have sat down first to talk about our media diet. In fact, this exercise sparked new conversations and project ideas.


Fast forward.

This Summer I taught the “Data Skills” course at the CUNY Social Journalism Graduate Program, a pioneering initiative led by Dr. Carrie Brown, where students work with specific communities to think of Journalism as a Service, with and for their users; rather than as a Product in itself.

Fortunately for us, and for the future of Journalism, our students come from very diverse professional, race, gender and sexual orientations, nationalities and personal backgrounds. Their interests as reporters, are equally wide. Hence, I was very curious to learn right away as much as I could about them and from them, to tailor the following Data classes to their program projects. So I made sure the first assignment would be to create a “Data Diary”, following Zuckerman’s assignment rules, with a twist:

Research and gather data about yourself and keep a data diary for a week. It can be virtually about anything that starts with an interesting question to answer: your browsing behavior, the amount of calories you eat per day, how many songs and which type of songs do you listen to when you commute, how much news you consume per day, how much money you spend on weekends versus weekdays, how much time you spend at the School, your Twitter data about a topic, etc.
The purpose of this exercise is for you to discover how much data is available and learn something about yourself that you can tell us or show us with data in the next class. Present your data diary in a) a compelling way that summarizes your discovery (you can use browser extensions, drawings, audio, images, slides, text, video, websites like this one, etc.), and b) explain how you chose, found and organized the data.
Examples:
My own media diet diary.
Another example
Longer stuff that turn into full projects: 
Dear Data project (drawings in postcards). 
100 days without fear (this turned into a video blog). 
Bonus track: Six ways to graph your daily life

The results were all different and creative personal reflections of each one of the student’s skills and interests. Here are just three examples.


Noa Radosh’s hand drawn diary

“We collect more data in our everyday life activities than we think we do.
For our Data class, we had to chose a topic and gather all the data of ourselves for a week. I decided to research my daily activities and habits including a trip I had to North Carolina. I wanted to make something tangible and feel as if I “kept” a diary throughout the week”

First page of Noa’s Diary.

“I started tracking the amount of hours I sleep each night. Sleeping between 7–8 hours has always been one of my goals since I don’t like sleeping so much but I’m aware of its importance and benefits. So I wrote down the times I went to bed and the times I woke up”.

“Following with the good habits I tracked my physical activity. Even though I walk more than I’ve ever walked in my life by living in New York, I try to keep a workout routine to challenge my mind and body. There are some weeks where I do more and others less but this week my workout schedule and details are as shown in the chart. I drew as well another chart showing the intensity of each workout session, according to how I challenging I felt it was”.

Noa Radosh also tracked how much money she spend in that week. The amount of time she spent in the subway and mapped out a weekend trip she took with her boyfriend. You can see her complete Diary in her Medium post about it.


Joseph Amditis’s diary

Joe Amditis is one of those persons that enjoy learning and tinkering with technical stuff and wants to find out how everything works. He turns every assignment into opportunities to try out existing and new technologies. In this case, his goal was to collect and analyze personal and professional data to understand how well he manages his time. In the process he discovered, there were other types of data points that could provide him more meaningful answers to his questions.


Martika-Ornella Wilson’s iTunes Diary

“This data was collected from my iTunes ‘Last Played’ playlist. I reorganized the list to only show songs played within the last week [May 31st — June 6], and I removed Monday, May 30th from my Excel and Google data sheets”.

“I copy/pasted the data into Excel first, to clean the data and filter it according to what information I wanted to visualize. And I made all the charts in Google Sheets”.

Martika-Ornella went deep into the categorization and analysis of her music consumption and how it changes according to her daily actities. You can find the full presentation here.

Besides organizing the information by day, artist, time spent listening to each artist in the given period of time listening to music from iTunes, Martika Ornella discovered patterns and outliers around time of the day, different days and what sort of activities she was doing. She also realized that in order to get a full spectrum of music she would have to decide wether to include Spotify in the mix, and made the decision to stick with one dataset (iTune’s music).

You can find her full presentation in the link below. It’s a good lesson for Journalist and Newsrooms to think of editorial and platform delivery strategies, according to what we are doing, where and when.

If news consumption varies depending on factors such as the ones presented by Martika-Ornella about her music diet, it’s worthwhile asking yourself (like Amy Webb says): Which is the [version of the story] for a person who is [commuting in the evening to home].