03 February 2015

Asking Good Questions

If you challenge yourself (and you should challenge yourself), you’re bound to get stuck. If you aren’t hitting walls and getting stuck, you aren’t trying hard enough. Technology is changing constantly, so learning how to ask the right questions and get help with new tools is probably more important than actually learning how to use any one tool well today.

Questions like this are pretty hard to answer:

I’ve been trying for the past couple of hours to figure out what exactly I’m doing wrong with the high charts assignment, and I think the problem is that my data from excel that I created using a pivot table is organized wrong. Attached here is the spreadsheet, I’m fairly sure this is what the problem stems from.


I want to start putting together my slideshow, but the SlideDeck plug-in doesn’t seem to be working on my WordPress. Do you know why?


I can’t seem to make Slidedeck work… I tried creating a first slide and it doesn’t work. Nothing happens, it just keeps loading with no results…


I’ve been looking for a kml file for Russia and this is the closest I’ve gotten but there’s still a glitch: https://www.google.com/fusiontables/DataSource?docid=… Please help! I would really like to pitch this today.


I can’t install Tableau! I tried, but the download is just broken.

All I know is that you’re using Slidedeck. Or Fusion Tables. I don’t know what you’ve tried, I don’t know what happens when you try it, I don’t know what you thought was going to happen. I don’t know what “glitch” I should be looking for. So I don’t know enough to help you. A good question will include all of this:

  • What steps will reproduce the problem?
  • If you’re working with code or data, I probably need to see your data to reproduce the problem! Put your code or data into a gist or pastebin and include a link with your question.
  • What is the expected output?
  • What do you see instead?
  • What version of the software are you using?
  • If you’re working with something online, like a WordPress Plugin, you also want to try it in at least two browsers and include the name and version of the browsers you’ve tried it in.
  • For software that’s installed on your computer, like MS Word and Photoshop, be sure to include your operating system. (not just “Mac” but Mac OSX Jaguar)

Walk me through it, step by step. You’re aiming for something like this:

I can’t seem to make Slidedeck work! I selected “Add a Slide” and chose “Image Slide.” I tried uploading an image from my computer first and got as far as clicking “Upload Photo” button. It looked like it was starting to upload the photo – the blue bar appeared with the image’s file size – but then it just hung there. I waited for ten minutes. When that didn’t work, I tried adding some images directly to the media library and adding them to my slideshow that way. I can see the image but when I click “Apply” to save the slide, the slideshow says “Loading … We’re decking out your content.” It never actually loads.

Or perhaps…

I can download Tableau just fine, but when I try to actually open it, I get an error that says the file is corrupted: “Tableau is damaged and can’t be opened. You should move it to the Trash” – I’ve downloaded it three time from three different browsers and I keep getting the same error.

(And the solution to that last one is wholly non-intuitive: You have to Change your Privacy and Security settings to allow applications downloaded from “Anywhere” – it’s on the “general” tab. I try to encourage everyone to read error messages and think about what they are saying, but in this case they are going to do you no good whatsoever.)

So where should you get help?

You’re always welcome to ask me for help, or to ask Jue. When you’re stuck on a technical challenge (“Are we on the right track with our pitch?” is not a technical problem. “Why is chartbuilder only showing me half of a chart?” is a technical problem.) I want you to try opening a new issue to ask your question. It’s good practice and I want us to be able to see the kinds of things we’re all bumping up against.

Office hours, obviously, but also:

  • NICAR-L is indispensable for connecting with other journalists who are doing innovative data and interactive reporting. Get on the list now.
  • Hacks/Hackers is a great community, though they’re not currently accepting new registrations on their “help” site.
  • Join the Hacks/Hackers meetup. Go forth and network.
  • Stack Overflow is an excellent place to ask specific programming questions, but expect a lot of huffing and puffing if you aren’t following the advice here about how to ask good questions (or Stack Overflow’s own excellent post on the same.
  • Tweet questions. Tag them #dataskills
  • Join gis.stackoverflow.com – that is where you’re going to get help for any CartoDB question.
  • On campus, have free access to an incredible wealth of instructional videos from Lynda.com – visit iplogin.lynda.com to connect. Detailed instructions on getting setup at http://tech.journalism.cuny.edu/documentation/accessing-lynda/.

CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

© Spring 2015 Amanda Hickman