Voices: Math + coding makes for great journalism

Telling stories has been a passion from the early days of Adrián’s life where he narrated the actions of his toy figures to his family. (family photo)

I guess everything starts with a game for me.

When I was about 5 years old, I would often narrate the adventures of my Playmobil figures and describe their lives to my parents.

I’d do the same with my adventures when I was about 8 years old, playing a Spanish game called “chapas.”

Each player uses their own custom design bottle caps, which are meant to be cyclists simulating a Tour de France stage. I’d explain how the race was unfolding.

I didn’t know I wanted to be a reporter, but I see now that I was already reporting the lives of my toys and games to my family.

It wasn’t until I was 14 that I started reading newspapers and seeing how important it was to give a voice to people going through dysfunctional situations, whether it was the 2008 global financial crisis or the most recent wave of refugees arriving in Europe.

That’s when I realized that I wanted to be a journalist covering social issues, criminal justice or immigration. Unlike the games I played, these were real issues with a real human struggles.

I didn’t just love journalism

But I had another interest: I have always liked math.

When I was about 10 years old, I turned my love of math into a game. I’d practice calculations to impress my grandfather when watching “The Human Calculator,” a TV quiz show that included a math quiz. (I think that practice helped me when I took math classes after graduating from high school.)

I continued to use math as a teenager, using statistics as a tool to make important decisions, like figuring out the odds of getting a scholarship to study in the United States before applying for it.

‘Too scientific to be a journalist’

Press Seminar at European Parliament’s Youth Media Day (Courtesy of European Parliament)

By the time I was 17, my high school philosophy teacher told me that I was too scientific to be a journalist. I didn’t worry about it because I thought he was wrong.

I still really wanted to be a journalist, but that teacher was (sort of) right about how much I liked the certainty of numbers. Math tests were a relief for me compared to literature or history, where we had to write for hours during tests in high school.

I majored in journalism at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid with an exchange semester at Loyola University in Chicago, but math and coding were not part of the curriculum. Most of it was old school journalism classes, with lots of examples of good journalism and theories but no practical application of techniques.

Going outside academia to combine journalism and math

When I was 18, I got interested in combining journalism and math. I read the Guardian Datablog, the ProPublica Nerds, the BBC News Lab blogs and learned how to report data-driven stories.

I could see how they came out with the impactful stories I had already read, and that’s when I decided to combine my two passions: journalism and math.

I got immersed in combining math, coding and journalism during my first undergraduate year, when I discovered an active data journalism community in Madrid outside of my university.

Attending lectures organized by the Data Journalism group at Medialab Prado, I learned how to explain data to readers in a visual and appealing way. And I continued trying to create my own reporting tools to analyze and clean large datasets and to make life easier and take reporting to a new stage.

Coding to save time for reporting

While I was finishing my studies and after college, I worked as a data journalist in Spain and in the United Kingdom. My job included traditional reporting and analyzing data for my reported stories.

That job did not allow me to focus much on the reporting side because I also supported other colleagues in the newsroom with my visual and data analysis skills.

That’s when I turned to coding to deal with being overwhelmed with so many tasks.

I started creating my first snippets of code to do small tasks, like data visualization and scraping. I learned R, a programming language for statistical computing and graphics, during my free time.

Because of my interest in data, coding and math, I got to work on the Paradise Papers investigation at the Spanish newspaper El Confidencial.

That was a game changer. I realized could combine my two loves – math, expressed with code, and journalism.

By that time, I knew how to handle the data. That’s how I analyzed stories using code and explained complex ideas in a visual way that contributed to our reporting.

This showed me that journalists have to learn ways of handling huge amounts of data to get these good stories or to be able to analyze and explain algorithms that we live by.

Going abroad to get more education

After gaining that experience, I came to Columbia Journalism School in May. I am pursuing a master’s degree in data journalism to learn more complex data wrangling techniques.

During this past summer at Columbia, I have been learning the basics of computer science (including coding languages like Python), followed by courses teaching me more complex techniques like work automation and creating news apps.

Before starting at Columbia, I worked on coding projects using trial and error. Now I have a new, analytical way to apply coding to journalism, which speeds up my work and makes me more confident when approaching a coding project.

I’ve built bots to process information, including the hourly evolution of temperatures in different parts of the world and the daily levels of pollution in different areas of New York City.

My bot does my work

When my bot does the work for me, I receive automated emails telling me that it has processed, in one case, a recently published pollution levels dataset. It sends me an alert with the main insights and, most importantly, did a repetitive task I don’t have to do.

I can focus on other tasks during my daily work, and when any extreme value is registered, the bot sends me a notification to keep an eye on the outlier it has noticed, because there could be a story behind it.

The best thing is that this is a tool anyone could use in a newsroom, not just someone who knows how to code.

At the end of the day, data, math and coding skills are important.

But my most important accomplishment is being able to share those skills and collaborate with my colleagues and coworkers to push journalism and reporting even further ahead.