Hack Jersey: Law, Money & Politics: Where journalism and code collide

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Yvonne Chen

On Saturday, NJIT played host to Hack Jersey’s “Law, Money & Politics” event. Hack Jersey is an organization that unites journalists and programmers to solve journalistic issues. “Everything we do has news value or a news theme,” said co-founder Tom Meagher. The organization wants to develop a culture of journalists “working with data, analyzing data, and building things for the web,” and of programmers “interested in solving news problems in the news industry.” “The news industry is at a crossroads,” said Meagher, and requires leveraging new media to produce journalists who can “code” and coders who “care about the news.”

As this is an election year in New Jersey, Hack Jersey thought it timely to theme an event around politics and campaign finance. One of the event organizers, Miriam Ascarelli, is an NJIT professor.

The event featured two tracks, one for journalists, freelancers, and bloggers, and one for programmers.

The journalism track, dubbed a “data expedition,” opened with talks on working with finance data. This was followed by hands-on breakout sessions for participants to put their learning to use by analyzing financial data of various campaigns, then sharing their findings on “what you have to do with data to make it tangible.”

The programming track involved around 16 coders putting their heads together to create a web app on political campaign finances, using public APIs from organizations that collect state campaign finance data. Understanding how political campaigns are funded, who’s paying for them, and how politicians raise money “are hard issues to wrap your head around… we want to help regular users understand them.”

Attendees included two current NJIT students and two NJIT alumni. Although the short span of eight hours was sufficient to produce only a working prototype, Meagher said the team “started to examine how difficult it is to understand finance data,” which was an important takeaway. The team will continue to work on the app, write documentation and collate their findings.

“The event went well. It was a big learning curve,” says Meagher, but “we got a lot of positive feedback from folks.”

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Yvonne Chen

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