Where can journalists get GIS training?

Geographic information systems (GIS) analysts working in other industries are often university graduates with degrees in GIS.

Journalists do not have the luxury, time or resources to gain this level of training and will have to learn the software while still carrying out the demands of their day to day journalism duties.  

David Donald 
Source: Centre of Public Integrity

David Donald is data editor at the Centre of Public Integrity and was more fortunate:

“We have a saying in the US; ‘the squeaky wheel’ gets the grease, so when I was a young news reporter knowing I wanted training I let it be known to my editors that to keep me happy one of the things they should do is send me to training.”

David Herzog is the foremost authority on the use of GIS in reporting the news and he remembers:

“Back in 2003 US newsrooms were still pretty flush in terms of having money and spending money on training and suchlike. Since then newsrooms have cut back on training.”

Steve Doig, a professor and the Knights Chair in Journalism, specialising in CAR methods at the University of Arizona says these days:

“It is a case of journalists training journalists. Sadly most newsroom budgets won’t pay for formal industry training, the kind of thing you can get by going to training classes offered by ESRI.”

Clem Henrikson, senior marketing analyst of the Environmental Research Social Institute (ESRI), the GIS market leader, accepts:

“The problems of the journalist today, independent of ArcGIS and computers is that the business model of journalism and media is changing so much. Now journalists are finding that in the newsroom there are fewer of them and they are asked to acquire more skills, this is very challenging for journalists in the profession.”

So what are the options for journalists today?

Donald believes: “You go out and train yourselves… it’s not cheap, and it’s not free. I do think that is important that if a reporter really wants to grow in the profession they need to invest in themselves.”

Most CAR specialists today; Herzog, Donald, Doig, Jennifer LaFleur, director of CAR at ProPublica, and Megan Luther, training director at Investigators Reporters and Editors  (IRE) are all self-taught.

However they believe that attending courses at training providers such as the IRE and NICAR in the US and the Centre of Investigative Journalism (CIJ) in the UK is the best option for journalists.

Professor David Herzog
Source: Missouri School of Journalism

Herzog says: “I think that GIS programmes can be pretty big and scary for people”, and that; “there’s quite a few people out there who are using the software who try to teach themselves but are finding how complicated the GIS software and end up coming to one of our boot camps classes, what they do is come out to one of our NICAR conferences and take the hands on classes that the NICAR provides.”

Donald is also an advocate of these courses. He said:

“If somebody is in the States, I still think that the best training for journalists is the three-day mapping boot camp that IRE and NICAR have been running for years.”

However the cost of the boot camps ranges from $850 dollars for employees of publications selling more than 100,000 copies to $300 for the freelance journalist, plus travel to the IRE and NICAR headquarters in Columbia.

The bonus is that Esri offers boot camp students a free ArcGIS desktop licence.

“ArcGIS Desktop includes first year call-in technical support and upgrades at no cost to Boot Camp attendees. ArcGIS Desktop license will not time out,” the ESRI website says.

Henriksen says:  “We try to make our technology available to them at little or very low cost … and to put the tools in the hand of the people who are reporting the news… This is in view of the dire straits that journalists find themselves in these days.”

Donald believes this collaboration has been very important in getting GIS to journalists:

“We have retained that relationship with ESRI so someone who attends the boot camp can get ArcView [now Desktop]. I think that’s helped with the growth and I think again, that’s one way ESRI is recognizing the importance of Journalism and GIS.”

In the UK similar boot camps to those held by NICAR are conducted by Jennifer LaFleur among others every summer at the Centre of Investigative Journalism (CIJ) at the City of London University with prices ranging from £450 without concessions to £350 for members of the NUJ and £150 for students.

Unfortunately there are no similar collaboration as yet between ESRI and CIJ or other journalism training providers in the UK.

However any journalism students at university should be aware of the Eduserve Chest agreement. This is a collaberation between ESRI and Edusever to make ArcGIS accessible to students of UK universities.

ESRI’s website states: “ESRI UK is committed to supporting universities and other higher and further education institutions to use GIS technology. Currently over 80% of universities in the UK and Ireland have access to Esri software through our Eduserv Chest agreement“.

This agreement according to Eduserve allows: “Access to software across campus and at home (within the UK and Ireland)”, and is in place up until 14th July 2014.

There are also other options available to get training in GIS, particularly in relation to open source GIS.

Aisch states: “There is a huge community around QGIS so you find tons of resources like tutorials out in the web.” (The Data Journalism Handbook).

This is free and is provided by users of QGIS to help others use it and also to spread its use. Tutorials range from the beginner who has just downloaded the software to those who are very experienced and wish to perform high-end GIS analysis.

Another excellent source of GIS training for the beginner in the UK is provided by the Ordnance Survey (OS), Great Britain’s; “national mapping authority, providing geographic data, relied on by government, business and individuals”.

The OS OpenData Master Classes are now available as a one course or online
Source: OS Open Data
Click image to go to site

The OS conducts a one day OpenData Master Class a couple of times a year.

Ian Holt, head of developer outreach, runs this course.  Although primarily concerned with the open data that organisations such as the OS and the Office of National Statistics produces, Holt believes it is important that people know how to best use this data using different technologies and GIS is an crucial part of this.

Holt says: “The aim is to encourage people to innovate … the aim is not just to show people what information is out there but also to encourage people to use it in different and interesting ways.”

For these classes Holt uses QGIS. He says: “A lot of people really like the fact that we use open source software QGIS because often at times they may have heard about it but not had a chance to use it.”

When asked if he was aware of any other UK agencies providing this training Holt replied:  “No, it’s unique. There are other companies that do provide this, consultancies and so on in QGIS but generally they have to make money so there will be a charge I imagine.”

The course is an excellent introduction to QGIS and Open Source, but a disappointment was that no other attendees harboured any journalistic ambitions.

There were representatives from Councils nationwide, Police and Fire departments, the Environmental Agency, Wikimedia, the Ramblers Society, architectural consultants and leading GIS academics all with varying degrees of competency with using QGIS and open data.

Holt can’t recall having any journalists on his course:

“If we have, which I can’t remember we have, they have probably come from the ‘geo-press’ rather than anywhere else,” he said. The geo-press are specialised publications that report on GIS issues.

It seems a shame that journalists are not using this free training. Hopefully as journalists understand the extra benefits of using GIS and open data they will be more proactive in seeking out these types of courses. Holt is hoping to conduct more of these in the future in conjunction with other open data organisations.

“What we would like to do in the future is not to do this on our own but also have the Open Data Institute (ODI) or someone also delivering this alongside us,” he said.

He also hopes to deliver this training free online which will be of great benefit to the journalist who can download it and work with the materials at a time most convenient to them.  t

Since I attended this course last November the training and materials have now be put online . (available at http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/blog/2013/12/os-opendata-masterclass-materials-available-to-download/)

Community QGIS user groups and conferences are also emerging through the UK and US and these can offer the journalist advice, knowledge and inspiration in using GIS to report the news. However again, when I attended the Wales QGIS User Group conference this year I was the only attendee with a journalism background.

Perhaps journalists are wary of using such complicated software.

Herzog believes: “GIS programmes can be pretty big and scary for people, they are just so fast in the case of their capabilities, journalists have to use just ten per cent of what it does.

Hopefully this blog has shown that the notion of journalists teaching themselves GIS is definitely feasible; it is how leading journalists such as Nick Evershed of the Guardian got started in GIS.

However a little bit of extra expert tuition on GIS and how it can be used in journalism from those journalists who have seen it, done it and got the t-shirt would never be a bad thing.

By Richard Bedford.

I thank the following for their kind contributions:

Professor Steve Doig

Professor David Herzog

Clem Henriksen

David Donald

Ian Holt



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