Telling Science Stories with Code and Data: Help us Plan the Workshop Around What You Need

circos-table-vcmqzuqrand-largeNESW has been awarded an Idea Grant from the National Association of Science Writers to organize a one-day workshop called “Telling Science Stories with Code and Data. The idea is to create new and better SCIENCE stories by exploring and leveraging the new tools available to journalists—computer programming and data analysis.”

We hope to schedule the workshop in Spring 2015. Help us tailor it to you and your needs. We have in mind a hands-on workshop that is story-driven, not tools-driven (in contrast to “data journalism” workshops, which are typically tutorials in a particular tool). We need your input to design a workshop that equips you with skills, ideas and tools you can use for your stories and that advances the state of the art.

Below are a few examples of workshop exercises and a simple questionnaire. If you are interested in participating, please take a moment to tell us whether the examples seem useful and relevant, or to give us alternative ideas that better match your needs. We also want to know what you would want to gain from such a workshop.

The workshop will most likely be held in Cambridge, Mass. Attendance will be limited so that participants can work in small, well-supported groups to learn skills by exploring sample challenges together. The grant will allow us to keep registration fees very low and also to create a community website where we can share videos, tutorials and other resources afterward.

Here are three hypothetical examples of projects workshop groups could tackle:

1. Look for patterns in public data. Federal research funding is shrinking. Can we say anything interesting about how Massachusetts, traditionally a grant magnet, is faring? As a way to explore the challenges of acquiring and analyzing data, let’s scrape or download a decade of funding data from NSF, DOE or NIH and plot total funding and proposal success rates to look for trends and differences between Massachusetts and the rest of the nation.

2. Create an online interactive. A new screening test claims to diagnose green left thumb disease with 90 percent accuracy. Critics point out that because the incidence of green left thumbs in the U.S. population is only 1 percent, almost 90 percent of the positive results will be false positives. How can a test that’s 90 percent accurate give 90 percent wrong answers? As a way of learning to illustrate science stories, let’s create an interactive online illustration that will help readers understand this seeming paradox.


3. Visualize data on a map. In medieval Europe the bubonic plague spread at a speed of four miles per day. In the modern world, with air travel, epidemic diseases can move a lot faster. Using open-source mapping software and a database of air routes, let’s try creating a map showing possible paths of transmission for the West African Ebola outbreak.breastcancer

Please use this online form to let us know what you’re interested in, give us your suggestions and get on the mailing list for workshop details:

Who wants to use Python for reporting?

What: Python for Journalists — How to use simple coding to enhance your reporting.
When: Tuesday, Oct. 29, 6 pm
Where: Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass

Registration is limited to the first 50 people. Sign up at:

If you have little or no experience with computer programming, and you’re facing a problem that’s just crying out for a programmatic approach, what do you turn to?  The answer is Python!

Freelance writer John Bohannon, who had no experience with programming, taught himself the programming language Python, which allows people to author simple programs. He used it in his investigative story for Science,  “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”, an investigation of peer review among fee-charging open access journals. Between January and August 2013, Bohannon submitted fake scientific papers to 304 journals. Despite deliberate errors in the papers, they were accepted by 60 percent of the journals that received them. Each of the 304 papers was unique, with completely different authors and affiliations. Each paper described a different study, with different chemicals and cancer cells. The investigation generated over 3000 emails, all of which are now public record. So how did he do that?  With Python.

Bohannon will tell the story of that sting — in code.  It will be extremely newbie-friendly, and he’ll walk us through a little problem set that we do in the class in real time.

  • how to create a template for a Mad Lib and scale up production as big as you need
  • how to scrape the data from a website
  • how to create and curate data programmatically
  • how to send emails automatically from the command line (via Python, grabbing the body from text documents and the email addresses from your data)

By the end, everyone will have basically learned how to do what he did, and will have a starter kit of tools that allow them to do nearly anything.

Thanks to Neil Savage for organizing and to Rosalind Reid for hosting.

Sponsors: A co-event of New England Science Writers and Hacks/Hackers Boston. Hosted by Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The Comet of the Century?

Please RSVP to our first Fall event to hear about the rumored “comet of the century.”

ISON on 10 Oct. 2013. From M.P. Mobberley (

ISON on 10 Oct. 2013. From M.P. Mobberley (

Wednesday, 16 October
6 pm – Pizza social
7 pm – Comet talk
Location: Haller Hall, located in the building housing the Harvard Museum of Natural History
26 Oxford St. Cambridge, MA.
Cost: $5
Twitter hashtag: #ISON

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Events, contest deadline

Here are some upcoming events and deadlines of interest:

1. Sunday, March 31 — Deadline for entries
American Geophysical Union’s David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism. The Perlman Award recognizes outstanding news reporting on the Earth and space sciences produced under deadline pressure of one week or less. The award consists of a $5,000 stipend and a plaque, and we now accept entries electronically (only), greatly simplifying the submission process. For further information about the award itself, see: To go directly to the nomination form: click this link.

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NESW party rocks the Pru at AAAS

Carol Morton (far left) leads the dancing

Carol Morton (far left) leads the dancing

More than 800 science journos, students, PIOs, ands guests partied and networked Saturday, February 16 at the New England Science Writers reception for communicators covering the 2013 annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.

Fresh from a day of AAAS presentations on everything from brain plasticity to cosmic microwaves to sparse phenomena, science writers were treated to panoramic nighttime views of a bejeweled Boston from the 50th floor of the Prudential Tower. When not reserved for private functions, the well-windowed floor serves as the landmark building’s Skywalk Observatory.


Karen Weintraub (left) Claudia Dreifus (right)

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Read local: NESW page turners

Looking for a last-minute gift or a good book to curl up with in front of a roaring fire? We’ve put together a list of the latest books by NESW members published in 2012 or soon to be available in 2013. The list is alphabetical by NESW member names. Enjoy, enjoy! Continue reading

Genomic archaeology: Geneticist David Reich unearths links to archaic forebears

NESW member Bob Cooke (left) talks to HMS geneticist David Reich (right).

David Reich, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, talked to the New England Science Writers recently about what his genetic studies have revealed about the evolution of archaic and modern human populations.

Here is a report by Jeff Hecht, New Scientist correspondent and NESW steering committee member, who organized the Oct. 4 event with logistical support from David Cameron, HMS science communications director. Continue reading


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