Second annual STATS Live! Symposium hosts data journalists from FiveThirtyEight and INSIDER

Ella Koeze and Walt Hickey discuss the intersection of data and journalism to convey broader messages to the public

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The goal of the symposium was to engage students interested in statistics and draw attention to the area’s applications to various fields.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

This past Thursday and Friday, the second annual STATS Live! Symposium was held in Minor, Gilmer and Nau Hall. The goal of the symposium was to engage students interested in statistics and draw attention to the area’s applications to various fields. The two-day event featured two data journalists — Ella Koeze, a visual journalist at FiveThirtyEight, and Walt Hickey, senior editor for data at INSIDER. The symposium included two presentations as well as a workshop — each geared towards a different expertise level. 

The event was organized and sponsored by the Arts and Sciences Learning Design and Technology group as well as the statistics department. The Learning Design and Technology group helps faculty at the University explore new teaching ideas and projects to better meet their goals. Gail Hunger, the instructional designer in learning design and technology, organized the symposium along with Rebecca Hehn, a lecturer in the statistics department. Hunger explained via email the planning process for the symposium.

“The initial idea came about with 2 lecturers in Statistics, Jessica Curran and Maria Ferrara, who wanted to bring in relevant biomedical examples in Biostatistics (STAT 2020),” Hunger said.

Eventually, the idea expanded when another faculty member applied for a Learning Technology Grant from the Learning Design and Technology group. 

“The idea was to bring a panel of professionals in the field to discuss how they use Statistics in their field,” Hunger said.

In addition to the live event, the University has been holding the STATS Virtual Symposium for three years, where speakers talk to students virtually using Zoom, a video-chat application. Hunger said that over 500 students in five courses attend both types of symposiums. 

Koeze and Hickey, who also spoke in last year’s STATS Live! Symposium, made their second trip to the University for the event.

“The emphasis is to look at real data sets that Ella and Walt have worked with and to see their specific ‘lens,’” Hunger said regarding the purpose of the symposium. “The goal is to engage students to see the relevance of how to analyze data.”

Thursday’s events included one presentation targeted towards those with intermediate experience and a workshop for those with advanced-level experience. A reception at Gilmer Hall followed.

Friday’s presentation, targeted towards the novice level, started with Hickey presenting on strategies for data collection and analysis, emphasizing several higher-level questions to consider before and during analysis. Some of these, according to Hickey, include considerations of suspicious data that may not make practical sense as well as of values that could be missing.

“When you’re learning tactics, it can get kind of hard to see the bigger picture, and so one of the hopes that, when we talk about the work that we do as journalists, is look at the bigger picture,” Hickey said.

Afterwards, a small group of students presented preliminary statistical findings regarding a specific dataset, discussing concepts such as p-values which provide a measure of the statistical significance of results. Koeze then talked about her line of work, which focuses more on data visualization and effective ways to visually convey statistical information.

“I think that a lot of people forget that you can do something really cool, but it doesn’t give you a lot if you can’t explain it really well to other people,” Koeze said. 

During her presentation, she emphasized the importance of graphics to succinctly convey potentially complicated statistical information.

Second-year College student Makayla Herron came to the symposium event as part of her STAT 2020, “Statistics for Biologists” class and expressed interest in hearing about the speakers’ work.

“I learned a lot about what we’re talking about in biostats right now, how it can be applied through journalism, and not only find[ing] the statistical value of p-values, but also applying that through journalism and presenting it to the public,” Herron said.

In an interview with both speakers after the presentation, Koeze and Hickey offered advice to students interested in pursuing a career related to data visualization or analysis.

“Figure out a question that you want an answer to, or a thing you want to visualize, or whatever it is, and do it,” Koeze said. “You will learn technique that way, you will come across problems that way that you have to fix, and then at the end, hopefully you’ll have an example of something you’ve done, and that’s a really great way to get employers to look at you.”

Hickey added on, saying that after finding topics of interest and learning basic skills, the next best step would be to put those skills into practical use. 

“Definitely don’t hesitate — this is a perfect time in your lives to start learning these skills and techniques that’ll be able to carry you quite a long way,” Hickey said.

Hunger said that the symposium organizers hope to continue working with Koeze and Hickey for courses in data visualization. 

“As Ella and Walt share how they became data journalists, we hope students become encouraged about their own career path,” Hunger stated.  

This article has been updated to reflect that Rebecca Hehn also organized the symposium. 

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