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The DC Data Journalism meetup turned homework into investigations

Founder Flavius Mihaies talked about the group's first project on refugees.

Flavius Mihaies in D.C. (Photo by Julia Airey)
One of #dctech’s latest and greatest meetups began as a homework study group for journalists.

The DC Data Journalism Meetup was founded this summer by World Bank consultant Flavius Mihaies. The French-born Mihaies sat down with us for a chat outside the Smithsonian Sculpture Garden’s faux-Parisian cafe to explain how a study group turned into a productive meetup, and why a World Bank consultant would want to become a journalist.

The group’s first independent project is about Haitian refugees in the U.S. who left to try crossing the border into Canada, which made headlines this winter when some developed frostbite.

Members of the DC Data Journalism Meetup are documenting their further investigation into the matter, which so far has included submitting a public records request to Canada’s Open Government initiative for data on the country of citizenship for 2017 asylum seekers. (Findings shown below from a meetup article by group member and data scientist Baur Safi). The group is also investigating how Haitian refugees are also leaving the US for Mexico.

“The idea is to take public interest issues and apply the firepower of data and learning and collaboration in the process,” said Mihaies.

A graph shows the number of seekers for Canadian asylum in 2017. (Courtesy photo)

A graph shows the number of seekers for Canadian asylum in 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Prior to working on projects of its own, the group formed as a way to study and help each other on the homework for the online course  “Python for Data Journalists: Analyzing Money in Politics,” which was offered this past summer by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. After joining, Mihaies said he found almost 100 of his fellow classmates were based in D.C. and it only seemed natural to meet up in person.

“Maybe we should, like in school, meet and help each other study?” Mihaies said. “I wasn’t thinking about creating journalism. It was just to do the homework.”

One thing led to another, which eventually led to a bonafide meetup.

“We started talking about a few interesting things about data journalism, and inviting a few speakers to come in,” said Mihaies. “And then the course ended and we asked, what do we do now?”

The first project is personal to Mihaies, whose parents were Romanian refugees who fled to France as political refugees. He told us that although he grew up in France, he had roots elsewhere.

“The first political memory for me was the revolution in Romanian that my parents anxiously following, trying to call home and they couldn’t,” Mihaies said. “I remember we didn’t have a television, and during the three or four weeks of the revolution they rented a television to make sure they were following it back home. So I can’t imagine what it’s been like for Syrians that have been going through that for years.” He added later, “After ten years in America, when I go back to Paris I feel more American.”

Perhaps because of Mihaies’ commitment to the topic of investigating Haitian refugees, the data group in faring well. According to their meetup page, attendance is growing with about 20 participants per meeting, and according to Mihaies, the last meeting on November 2nd lasted four hours. It’s a step in the right direction for Mihaies, who is exploring becoming a journalist himself.

Mihaies, who graduated Oxford Univeristy in 2005 with a Master’s in International Reglations, began sojourning into  journalism after accompanying photojournalist Reza Deghati on a trip to refugee camps following a TedTalk Reza gave in 2014. A year later Mihaies went to visit and document refugee camps again – this time in the Kawergosk refugee camp in Syria. His experiences there led him to start writing stories – such as a Medium article about the female community members he believed led their own fights, and an Upworthy article about a Syrian wedding.

After returning to the same Kawergosk refugee camp in Syria this December, Mihaies also produced a short 360-degree VR film with the help of Joey Cathey, who organizes the DCVR Meetup.

Between his trips, Mihaies started an investigation about refugees closer to his current home in D.C.

“The last year and a half I’ve been working on a piece on the 10,000 Syrian refugees in America that the Obama Administration settled in it’s last fiscal year,” he told us. “I’m curious to know who are those 10,000 refugees? And where did they end up? And what do they become? Because maybe I bumped into them in the camps.”

To do this, he needed data on where the refugees were settled in the U.S. He found spreadsheets from the Start Department that showed refugees being settled in mostly rural areas. “In parallel I started using Tableau at the World Bank,” Mihaies said. “I thought, maybe there’s a way I can visualize this data.”

Enter Knight’s online course on python for data journalism this summer.

As the data group has developed from study group to a meetup, it’s not just the projects which have changed. “When I started the meetup I assumed most members would be fellow journalists in urgent quest to become data fluent,” Miahies wrote to us in an email last week. “Turns out most are ‘hardcore’ data scientists interested in doing journalism.”

According to Mihaies, the data scientists and journalists work well together – although there are occasional disagreements about what standard of proof it takes to write a story. “Data scientists will say we don’t have enough data to tell a story, or data does not fully confirm there is a story, but journalists will respond: actually we have just enough data to back up the story we want to tell.”

Recently, the group launched its own website, which features the data projects members investigate, as well as any publications that cover the stories.

The DC Data Journalism members meet at 1776 on 15th street, with the next meetup happening Thurs., Nov. 16, at 6:30 p.m. On Thursday night, the group will be summarizing their work on immigration so far and looking for pitches for their next project.


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