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400 data journalists choose their own adventure at the Brown Institute's bootcamp.

400 Data Journalists Choose Their Own Adventure at the Brown Institute’s Bootcamp

Written by 
Aletta Hiemstra
Landing page for the event, designed in ohyay.
Lobby room featuring a 3D drawing of the institute's physical building on Columbia's campus.

What’s one way to attract 400 practicing journalists, students, engineers, and academics to your weekend-long bootcamp and keep them engaged over the course of two days?

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a research institute spanning Columbia Journalism School and Stanford Engineering, built a “choose your own adventure” virtual experience called The Wrangler ( that awarded guests with colorful badges based on how many two-hour workshops they attended. They encouraged guests to post their profiles — a collection of all of their badges — on Twitter.

Participant Shihao Feng's collection of badges, based on how many two-hour workshops they attended.

Throughout the event, 28 speakers introduced new tools and approaches to journalism, from natural language processing to virtual reality, and gave a new spin on older ideas. At any point, there were three or four workshops running in parallel — and guests had the freedom to decide which sessions they were going to attend. Nearly 150 guests participated in at least two sessions.

Interactive schedule and map with buttons to navigate to the talks, mingle rooms, etc.
Guests clicked on buttons, colored by topic, to navigate to various talks.

In the past, the Brown Institute team offered similar types of sessions, but spread out over a year and in person. This year, they wanted to open up the event to a global audience. When all was said and done, they had presenters from six time zones — from the US to the UK to India to Singapore and Taiwan — and representation from global news organizations like The New York Times and The Guardian, investigative teams like Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture, and other partners like Neo4j and Hearken.

Gurman Bhatia's talk, "Learning the Language of Dataviz on Paper."
Sarah Cohen's talk, "Web Scraping."

“No matter how engaging the speakers, watching virtual presentations for hours on end is boring. We were determined to make a jam-packed two-day workshop as exciting as possible,” said Michael Krisch, Deputy Director at the institute. 

So how did the Brown Institute team keep their guests' attention? 

  • They added a layer of nuance that made the event feel like an entirely custom experience. “We built an adaptive profile page for each attendee using ohyay’s API, giving them unique badges for sessions they attended,” said Michael. 
Custom profile page.
  • They gave guests the freedom to return to the space and watch recordings after the event. “We really wanted the ohyay space to have an afterlife. Guests can return whenever they want to watch recordings and continue building out their profiles,” said Ziv Schneider, Creative Technologist and Associate Researcher at the Brown Institute. 
Navigating back to Bianchi Dy's and Siti Aishah's recording, after the event.
  • They encouraged participation during sessions via a Q&A board, chat, and click-to-join slots. “It’s easier to keep everyone on screen in ohyay compared to other virtual event platforms," said Michael.
Guests participate via the Q&A board and chat.
  • They walked the walk with a browser-based tool. “I appreciate when coding workshops use online/browser tools instead of actually making all the attendees download new programs,” Tweeted journalist and participant Betsy Ladyzhets.
My morning with #TheWrangler @cocteau

The Brown Institute team are no strangers to ohyay. They’ve hosted their Magic Grant Showcase two years in a row on ohyay, created a space for the Computation + Journalism conference last February, and are currently planning a multi-modal, hybrid ohyay space for their physical building on Columbia’s campus. But this event felt different. 

Mock up of the multi-modal, hybrid ohyay space at the Brown Institute's physical building at Columbia.

“There was an outpouring of appreciation from guests on social media and via email. It was exciting to see people posting their profiles of session attendance, because they’re entirely individual to them and what they experienced,” said Ziv. 


Since its founding nearly ten years ago, the Brown Institute has encouraged and supported new endeavors in media innovation through grants and fellowship programs and through training sessions like The Wrangler.

“At Columbia, we have created fantastic extracurricular experiences for our journalism students, experiences that help them expand their reporting practices. The Wrangler did that, in a big, delightfully chaotic, but certainly big way. I couldn’t be happier,” said Mark Hansen, Director of the Brown Institute. 

The Brown Institute team with their custom badges.

Anyone is welcome to explore the Brown Institute's event space and watch the recorded talks at

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Aletta Hiemstra

Community & Communications at ohyay