Tuesday, August 30, 2011

New 2010 Census Data Project from IRE

We all know that the 2010 Census data has started to come out, giving newsrooms updated demographic information from the once-every-10-years count of the American population. The Census Bureau website has detailed information and a schedule of new releases. But what if you just want to quickly download population figures and do some simple comparisons?

A new project by Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri offers quick access to 2010 Census data in a variety of formats and ranges. The project, built by volunteers from the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, USA Today, CNN, Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, allows users to browse data from states, counties, places and even individual tracts, providing 2000 Census data for comparison.

For example, data from Alachua County, Fla., shows that the total population grew some 13.48 percent from 2000 to 2010 (the project helpfully includes raw numbers and the percentage change). And each page can be downloaded as a CSV file that can be opened in Excel or another spreadsheet program for analysis, although you'd be best-served to have a reference to Census data headers handy. Luckily, the IRE Census project provides one.

Developers who want to use Census data directly in Intranet or Internet applications can also get their fix via the project's JSONP files, which make it easy to read the data programmatically. You can even download a shapefile of geographic data, and the project allows you to compare multiple geographies (such as a five-county area) if you want to.

The Census Bureau is still your source for reports and in-depth releases based on the 2010 Census data, but if you want to play with the data yourself and don't want to download the entire set (which can be very large and hard to manage), IRE's project is a great way to dip your toes in the Census pool.

--Derek Willis

Monday, August 29, 2011

Notes from the Chair: Exchanging Ideas

Considering there are so many online platforms and outlets these days for communication and socializing, meeting for an in-person conversation seems a comparatively rare and refreshing event. Earlier this month, librarians from the SLA Boston chapter got together for an idea exchange -- very much resembling a salon discussion, though more focused and including multiple subjects suggested by attendees.

This was truly some of the most valuable conference programming I've ever experienced. The idea for it originated with Journalism That Matters, an organization that travels around the country holding these "convening conversations" for the purpose of sharing ideas and skills. In March, they held one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to discuss how journalists and librarians could work together.

Other than participants and time, the only other requirements are markers, paper and a video camera if you wish to document the session. Attendees post questions about the top issues facing either their profession or their own work. These are then displayed on the wall, and the audience decides on which topics they want to talk about; those that are similar are combined.

The conversation concludes with a couple of key ideas or conclusions. One person from each discussion then reports the conclusion. Some of the conferences I've attended actually had us get up and physically stand with the idea we thought resonated most. And some have even agreed to keep in touch to help put the ideas or goals into place.

It was great to witness the enthusiasm that the SLA Boston president-elect, Khalilah Gambrell, exhibited in hosting this program. Additionally, the date on which it was held was selected so that two special guests could join us: David Cappoli and Deb Hunt, the candidates for president-elect of SLA, who were on the last leg of their East Coast campaign trail - following whistle-stops to visit with SLA members in Washington, DC and New York.

We grabbed our markers and in short order stuck paper slips expressing our concerns and questions on the wall; Khalilah very adeptly sorted them into several categories: Professional Development, Information Overload / Value of the Profession, Transitions / Retirement, Budget issues and Vendor / Publisher concerns. We then broke out into smaller groups to discuss these various topics.

I participated in the Information Overload / Value of the Profession discussion. The latter is a constant issue in our industry as well as others: with the ease of creating information it is difficult for users -- even information professionals -- to manage it all. It is always interesting to see where these discussions go; our conversation largely centered around cultivating relationships, reaching out to those 'we don't always hear from,' and the value of extending oneself outside of his or her regular routine.

One librarian said she had success in casual conversation 'just having coffee in the mornings with engineers' when she was at an engineering firm. Another attendee suggested 'identifying what's sexy'; that is, the department in your company with most interest and activity around it. This librarian mentioned she learned this while working at Credit Suisse First Boston when there was a lot of interest in energy markets at the time. I added that interviewing colleagues personally but casually had been successful; that is, finding out what their needs and goals were, and how the librarian might support them with your own recommendations and by developing a kind of informational template around them.

David and Deb circulated to all of our groups, and definitely added some great ideas and success stories from their own experiences.

The time went by quickly and we could definitely have used more of it. A video of the session was made that hasn't yet been posted; but I will do so once it is live. Here's another account of our evening by Paula Cohen, another attendee.

We were kindly hosted by Dee Magnoni, the librarian at Olin College of Engineering, at their campus, which also included dinner and a library tour.

It looks likely we'll do this again in the future; and hopefully this account will give you a sense of the format one might use to host a conversation like this. It's a great way to get feedback and ideas on questions and concerns you're seeking solutions for from some very engaged and involved members of the information profession.

-- Leigh Montgomery

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Aside Bar - From the Editor

I overheard an editor and reporter the other day discussing coverage of upcoming events in the reporter's beat. She had looked through all of her materials and couldn't find a thing going on: "It's August. Who would want to get out in this heat?"

This is the month when everything slows to a crawl. We're used to the heat in South Texas, but it's been brutal even for us. We're even running out of ways to describe it; I recently saw the phrase "still very hot" on our weather page --after three days of "very hot."

However, I don't think it ever gets truly "slow" for any of us anymore. It just means that perhaps we have a chance to get to all the tasks we had been putting off while the daily workload was heavy. Now, we just have to remember what all those tasks were...

Go through your task list. Or more likely, excavate the pile of stuff on your desk or in your to-do bin. Confront your inner procrastinator by doing the one thing you've been putting off the longest. Check your Favorites on your Internet browser and look at some blogs or websites you haven't visited in a while. See what they are talking about.

Navel-gazing has its benefits. We can become more efficient, troubleshoot problems, find a new resource, analyze our methods and more... if we would take a moment and do it. Of course, if you have the attention span of a gnat, like I do, try not to get too distracted (or click on too many unrelated links).

Since we're not getting out in the heat, curl up with your circular fan and contemplate! Let the whirring of the blades become your white noise against all the distractions and pressures of your worklife.

Or call up a colleague at another library -- one you haven't talked to in awhile or would like to know better. Have a virtual back-porch-swing chat (some iced sweet tea might help too). Talk about a project or problem that's been at the back of your mind but which you've been too busy to tackle. Let the conversation take you where it takes you. Perhaps you'll learn a few things or solve some additional problems.

--Julie Domel