NICAR16: A glimpse at an Excel-free future thanks to relational databases

Some people come to NICAR with goals, whether they were networking goals or technical goals or partying goals. I came to my first NICAR with next to nothing. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, other than it being half a week’s worth of sessions and panels about data, journalism, and everything in between, which it turns out, is quite a bit.

One thing I had been meaning to learn for a while, though, was how to use and query relational databases. I’ve worked in MongoDB and other schemaless databases before (read: I’ve worked with big JSON files), mostly because of their convenience and because strangers on the Internet who ran tutorial websites told me to. But I also knew in the back of my mind that I should probably learn how to use relational databases too, since the two do serve very different use cases and each has their pros and cons.

I went from knowing of something to knowing about it, but I still wasn’t quite ready to drop the prepositions and just start knowing it

It was only natural then that I started NICAR off with a 9 a.m. session titled “Intro to database manager MySQL I” with Paula Lavigne, a reporter at ESPN. The talk wasn’t a deep dive into MySQL or even into relational databases in general, nor was it trying to be. The talk, however, was a good first introduction to MySQL using Navicat to supplement the basic operations covered with some helpful displays.

Immediately after the session, I downloaded and set up a MySQL server on my laptop and started playing around with a couple of CSVs I had lying around on my computer. I quickly realized that 1) I was looking at what could be the beginning of an Excel-free future, 2) I’d probably been going way too long not knowing how use and query relational databases, and 3) I still didn’t know how to use and query relational databases.

I was in that state everyone finds himself in at one point or another: I went from knowing of something to knowing about it, but I still wasn’t quite ready to drop the prepositions and just start knowing it. There was still a lot I wasn’t sure of: what are best practices for using relational databases? What can relational databases do, and what can’t they do? Also, just by virtue of being exposed to data journalism through the Knight Lab, I was aware of at least two other relational database managers other than MySQL, namely SQLite and PostgreSQL. What were the differences between the three, and why would I want to use one over the other?

Luckily, there was another session at 10:15 a.m. on Friday called “Counting and summing with SQL” presented by Meghan Hoyer, a data journalist with the Associated Press. That talk was concerned mostly with using SQL commands to perform operations across records in tables, and used SQLite and the Firefox SQLite Manager. There, I learned a few important things about SQLite that set it apart from MySQL: an entire SQLite database is contained in a single file, which makes it easier to share if you’re working on a project where multiple people need to touch and modify the data at the same time or if you’d like to hand the data off to someone else or just keep a portable copy with you. It also doesn’t require you to spin up a server like MySQL does, which makes it extremely lightweight. There are some other key differences between the database management systems (which I highly recommend you read about here if you’re interested), including many that weren’t included in either session, but the exposure and hands-on experience with the tools were what really gave me the kick I needed to look into it more and make decisions for myself about which systems suited my requirements best. Relational databases are by no means a revolutionary or novel idea, but they are important for any data journalist to have in his or her toolkit.

About the author

Josh Shi

Student Fellow

Latest Posts

  • Building a Community for VR and AR Storytelling

    In 2016 we founded the Device Lab to provide a hub for the exploration of AR/VR storytelling on campus. In addition to providing access to these technologies for Medill and the wider Northwestern community, we’ve also pursued a wide variety of research and experimental content development projects. We’ve built WebVR timelines of feminist history and looked into the inner workings of ambisonic audio. We’ve built virtual coral reefs and prototyped an AR experience setting interviews...

    Continue Reading

  • A Brief Introduction to NewsgamesCan video games be used to tell the news?

    When the Financial Times released The Uber Game in 2017, the game immediately gained widespread popularity with more than 360,000 visits, rising up the ranks as the paper’s most popular interactive piece of the year. David Blood, the game’s lead developer, said that the average time spent on the page was about 20 minutes, which was substantially longer than what most Financial Times interactives tend to receive, according to Blood. The Uber Game was so successful that the Financial...

    Continue Reading

  • With the 25th CAR Conference upon us, let’s recall the first oneWhen the Web was young, data journalism pioneers gathered in Raleigh

    For a few days in October 1993, if you were interested in journalism and technology, Raleigh, North Carolina was the place you had to be. The first Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference offered by Investigative Reporters & Editors brought more than 400 journalists to Raleigh for 3½ days of panels, demos and hands-on lessons in how to use computers to find stories in data. That seminal event will be commemorated this week at the 25th CAR Conference, which...

    Continue Reading

  • Prototyping Augmented Reality

    Something that really frustrates me is that, while I’m excited about the potential AR has for storytelling, I don’t feel like I have really great AR experiences that I can point people to. We know that AR is great for taking a selfie with a Pikachu and it’s pretty good at measuring spaces (as long as your room is really well lit and your phone is fully charged) but beyond that, we’re really still figuring...

    Continue Reading

  • Capturing the Soundfield: Recording Ambisonics for VR

    When building experiences in virtual reality we’re confronted with the challenge of mimicking how sounds hit us in the real world from all directions. One useful tool for us to attempt this mimicry is called a soundfield microphone. We tested one of these microphones to explore how audio plays into building immersive experiences for virtual reality. Approaching ambisonics with the soundfield microphone has become popular in development for VR particularly for 360 videos. With it,...

    Continue Reading

  • Audience Engagement and Onboarding with Hearken Auditing the News Resurrecting History for VR Civic Engagement with City Bureau Automated Fact Checking Conversational Interface for News Creative Co-Author Crowdsourcing for Journalism Environmental Reporting with Sensors Augmented Reality Visualizations Exploring Data Visualization in VR Fact Flow Storytelling with GIFs Historical Census Data Information Spaces in AR/VR Contrasting Forms Of Interactive 3D Storytelling Interactive Audio Juxtapose Legislator Tracker Storytelling with Augmented Reality Music Magazine Navigating Virtual Reality Open Data Reporter Oscillations Personalize My Story Photo Bingo Photojournalism in 3D for VR and Beyond Podcast Discoverability Privacy Mirror Projection Mapping ProPublica Illinois Rethinking Election Coverage SensorGrid API and Dashboard Sidebar Smarter News Exploring Software Defined Radio Story for You Storyline: Charts that tell stories. Storytelling Layers on 360 Video Talking to Data Visual Recipes Watch Me Work Writing and Designing for Chatbots
  • Prototyping Spatial Audio for Movement Art

    One of Oscillations’ technical goals for this quarter’s Knight Lab Studio class was an exploration of spatial audio. Spatial audio is sound that exists in three dimensions. It is a perfect complement to 360 video, because sound sources can be localized to certain parts of the video. Oscillations is especially interested in using spatial audio to enhance the neuroscientific principles of audiovisual synchrony that they aim to emphasize in their productions. Existing work in spatial......

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More