Category Archives: Coding

Hack the Election! Hacks/HackersMcr

Image of The Shed's doorThe great thing about organising Hacks/Hackers meet-ups is getting to meet amazing people from all walks of life who give their time generously and leave you feeling inspired. And hopefully everyone who came along to our event on Monday sixteenth of March felt similarly fired up by our guest speakers.

The Venue

Thanks to the brilliant team at MMU’s Digital Innovation for letting us use their fabulous, industrial space at The Shed. It meant we could provide tea and coffee to everyone on arrival which makes us feel all warm and hospitable! It’s also got full AV facilities and good wifi which meant our guests could show us the full range of their ideas and we also set up a Twitterwall so we could display the #HHMcr tweets as they happened!

Voter apathy?

The meet-up was all about finding inspiration on how to engage younger people in democracy and politics ahead of the election and even make it fun??!! As journalists, we know that although we get excited about elections, our audiences may not share that enthusiasm. Often, that’s because they don’t know where to find the information that can help them to get more involved. Or it may be because they don’t think the election is relevant to them especially here in Manchester with safe Labour seats leading to very low turnout.

The Speakers

Beth Ashton talking at HacksHackersMcrBeth Ashton, Social Media Editor at M.E.N. talked about how they’re putting together a Manchester Manifesto, asking the people of Manchester what they think are the big issues.

Next up was Francis Irving, CEO of Scraperwiki and the programmer behind They WorkForYou which parses Hansard data to show MP’s voting record in parliament. He talked about the suite of open democracy sites put together by Democracy Club .Francis Irving talking at Hacks/HackersMcr

  • YourNextMP - Find out who’s standing in your constituency and how to contact them
  • – Real-time monitoring of election leaflets. Keep track of how politicians are trying to get your vote!
  • Democracy Club’s CVs – a site to help candidates share their CVs with voters
  • MeetYourNextMP – find out how to meet the candidates standing in your constituency and question them with this site listing hustings by constituency.

One of my local candidates happened to be following me as I was tweeting about this and has promised to upload his CV! And, of course, these sites are great sources of potential stories and data for journalists.

Dan Hett talking at Hacks/HackersMcrTo round off the evening, Dan Hett – senior games developer at BBC Childrens, live coder extraordinaire and all-round creative person – inspired us to just go out there and make stuff that is awesome. Throw off your chains and don’t worry if it doesn’t work!

So if any of you were inspired by what you heard to make something, let us know!

Hacks/Hackers Manchester – looking forward

2015 New Year celebration with the date outlined by colourful fiery sparklers on a dark New Year's Eve night

Accessed from CC By 3.0

In an attempt to shake off the sluggishness of New Year and all that, I met with my co-organiser, Rob, today to do some coffee-fuelled forward planning for Hacks/HackersMcr. Here are some of the ideas we’re working on. As always, do let us know if you have any suggestions for themes, speakers, events or skill-shares. Spread the word!

  1. Late Feb/March – Hack the Election! There’s an election coming up. (Had you noticed?!) But how could news organisations get younger people interested in politics? Are games, apps, cool tools the answer? We’re going to bring together hackers, games developers, Apps developers, journalists, students to work in informal groups on their own crazy ideas (you don’t have to actually build anything there and then! Just come up with an idea and maybe a few drawings). Then groups get the opportunity to pitch them and vote on a winner!
  2. May – Digital Mapping. Maps can illuminate ideas in all sorts of amazing ways so we want to bring together journalists, technologists, artists, geographers to tell us about the latest ideas for mapping the future. We’re expecting this to be a weekend event to give us a bit longer to play and we hope to arrange some mini-skillshares so you can learn a few new techniques.
  3. Learning Lunches. Bring your Own Lunch and learn a new skill! We’re thinking APIs, regular expressions – anything, really, that falls into the broad hacks/hackers remit. Again, ideas and offers welcome.

There are a few other ideas knocking around as well but these are the main ones we wanted to share with our members. We’re also going to be exploring some new venues so, again, suggestions welcome. Could your organisation offer a space, for example?

HacksHackers Manchester – The Launch

In the basement of a cool bar on the edge of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, the latest chapter of  HacksHackers was born on Wednesday night. My co-organiser, Rob Carroll, and I were amazed with the turnout – a real range of talent and interests.


HacksHackers Mcr brings together Hacks (the journalists) and Hackers (the developers) to find inspiration for rethinking media and information. We also had designers at our first meet-up which completed the magic triangle.

Thanks to the longstanding HacksHackers chapter in Helsinki for giving us a wave!


Launch photo edit Launch photo 2 edit

What I loved most about the meet-up was listening to the general buzz you get when a group of creative technologists get together. It’s just exciting to hear about so many projects taking shape on our doorstep and seeing how people make new connections.

So what’s next for HacksHackersMcr?

So the launch was great but where do we take things from here? Each chapter of HacksHackers around the world is different; there’s no set formula. So Manchester will take on its own personality and we were keen to find out what the attendees wanted to get out of it. A few ideas came up on our hi-tech A3-paper-and-pen user interface.

  • It’s important to have plenty of time to mingle. This seemed to be most people’s favourite aspect of the meet-up
  • A few lightning talks/guest speakers e.g. designing for digital journalism, exploring specific journalism tech challenges
  • Hands-on events/challenges e.g. civic engagement/democracy ahead of 2015 general election. What tools could Hacks and Hackers come up with?

So Rob and I are getting our heads together to plan our next meet-up. If you have suggestions, do let us know. Who should we invite to talk to us?

And if you’re curious about the direction of digital media/journalism/communications, then I highly recommend visiting our meet-up page and coming along to our next gathering. Or follow us on Twitter.

“Recalculating the newsroom: the Rise of the journo-coder?”

So, this is exciting.

As part of my journey to becoming more tech-minded, I wrote a chapter for a new book called “Data Journalism:Mapping the future.” (It’s due out in a couple of weeks time and I’ll post details then so you can rush out and buy a copy.) It’s edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble with Paul Bradshaw and Teodora Beleaga (Abramis)

There’s a book launch on January 22nd at the Adam Street Private Members Club, just off The Strand. Do come!

 Data journalism – mapping the future?

Chair: Raymond Snoddy. (Former Media Editor The Times)

Panel: David Ottewell – Head of Digital Trinity Mirror

Martin Stabe – Head of Interactive News The Financial Times

Jacqui Taylor – CEO Flyingbinary Limited

A new way for journalism or just old clothes disguised as new? Should journalists be programmers? Should they all have computing skills? Does Data Journalism help comprehension?

To mark the publication of Data Journalism; Mapping the Future? Edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble with Paul Bradshaw and Teodora Beleaga (Abramis)

So, what’s the chapter about?

I decided it was time to find out just how much coding skill journalists need in newsrooms today. Is the journo-coder a myth? Do we all need to have a github account as well as a blog? Should students ditch shorthand and learn to code instead?

I interviewed journalists and developers working in the interactive news departments at the BBC and Financial Times. They were extremely helpful and very generous with their time. I was interested in what skills they had,  how they learnt their skills and how they worked together.

Only one person was comfortable describing themselves as a “journo-coder” or any of the other ugly, hybrid phrases that are out there. The rest strongly identified as either journalist or developer. BUT, when pressed, the journalists admitted they had a pretty exceptional skill set that you wouldn’t expect a conventional newsroom journo to have. A top-notch developer wouldn’t call them coding skills and wouldn’t even mention them on their CV because they’re pretty trivial.  But for a journalist, WOW! Writing complex Excel functions or managing a database using SQL or writing a  simple scraper in Python – these are cutting-edge skills that move your journalism into an exciting new era of interactive storytelling. They are also highly marketable skills.

And they didn’t learn them in journalism class.

I’ll post more after publication and I’ll probably re-version it as a slideshare as well for anyone who’s interested.

Things I wish I’d Known – Part 2. WordPress dashboard disappears!

Just when I thought this new blog site was able to breathe unaided, an unexpected disaster strikes. My dashboard disappears! My blog was DOA.

It seems like this happens to a lot of people so here’s what I learnt.


You can log back in to your website (and hence your dashboard) like this

This should get you to a log-in page where you can get yourself back in. Phew!


But this just cures the symptom and, in my experience, doesn’t cure the problem. You don’t want to have to log in like this each and every time. I did a bit of research and came across a possible cause – an index.php file in my wp-plugins folder!

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Follow these steps:-

  1. Go to your FTP software (mine’s Filezilla)
  2. Connect to your host server. Typing should get you there (plus username and password for your web host)
  3. Once you’re connected, navigate down the right hand side (Remote Site) until you get to WP-content. You should find a plugins folder. Open that up and see if there’s an index.php file. If there is, trash it! (Maybe save it somewhere first as back-up)

I don’t know how the index.php file got there. Did I do that at some point? Or did it find its own way there? Who knows. But if it’s messing with your site, get rid of it.

Hope that helps.


Moving from to – Things I wish I’d known

A long journey…

Journey of Discovery: Korla to Dunhuang

CC License – by Land Rover Our Planet on Flickr

This isn’t a guide – beginner or otherwise – to switching from to There are plenty of those already out there. You might want to start with this one from Mashable. Instead, this is a reflection on the process from the viewpoint of a non-techy journalist. I’ll suggest a few websites that helped me and a few plugins (mostly free) which I’m finding really useful.

Most importantly, I’ll try to explain WHY your new blog isn’t appearing in a Google search. This scared me at first. What had I done wrong? Nothing, it turned out, once some friends explained a bit about how search engines work. Mostly you just have to be PATIENT. Yuck. This is what I wish I’d known before I started.

Why switch?

Good question. I’d been thinking about switching for a while mainly because I like using Storify and there is no reliable way to export a Storify to a site. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The only solution is to switch to where you can use a special plugin. Similarly, I was also keen to display the latest pins from my Pinterest board on “Coding for Beginners” in my sidebar – not possible unless you switch to a self-hosted account.

I also felt it would help consolidate some of the HTML/CSS skills I’d been learning on Codecademy if I had a self-hosted site I could do a bit of tinkering on.

I wanted to have control over meta-descriptions and the like. Not full blown SEO – just a bit of control.

The final straw that pushed me over the edge was purely practical. I was going to a conference and suddenly at the last minute realised that I needed business cards. I didn’t want them to be out-of-date a few months after I’d paid for them so I decided to switch websites that weekend so the business cards would be relevant.

How was the switch?

Horrific! It tested my tech skills to the max and I failed. Setting up a domain name and web host was fine (I used Laughing Squid which is one of the ones recommended by WordPress) but the actual installation was complicated (for me). Perhaps if I wasn’t working against a deadline (those damn business cards), I could have worked my way through it. But I didn’t have the luxury of time to research each step, I was getting frustrated and so I ended up calling on help from my husband who’s way more patient than I am.

So you might want to set aside a couple of days to do this and make sure you have a techy friend available on the end of the phone line for when you need help.

In hindsight, perhaps I should have chosen the Guided Transfer. This is where one of WordPress’ Happiness Engineers transfers your .com site to .org for you for a one-off price of $129. It would have saved me a lot of time….. but I felt it was cheating!

What next?

So let’s assume you’ve got your nice, shiny website, chosen your theme, added a header image. That’s all there is to it, right? WRONG! There are several more hoops to crawl through. You probably want to transfer the content from your old website onto your new one, you want people looking for your blog to be able to find it, you want to help people share your blogposts and a whole lot more. There are lots of plugins available. These enable you to extend the functionality of your blog in all sorts of ways. But be careful! Too many plugins slow your site down so it takes ages to load. Potential readers may not have the patience to wait. So choose your plugins with care.

        • You probably want to export all the posts and pages from your old website and import them into your new one. This is not too hard or time-consuming. The WordPress instructions are pretty good and there are plenty of YouTube videos out there too. It’s a bit nerve wrecking when you get to the final stages of the export/import but it did all work for me. Stay strong!
        • IMPORTANT. You’ll notice that a Google search still shows up your old website and doesn’t seem to find your new self hosted website at all. That’s not what you want. Ultimately, you just have to be patient. It will take the Google robots a while to trawl your website and add it to its searches. The good news is, there are a few things you can do to help. Firstly, add your blog’s new URL to Google’s webmaster tools. You then need to verify it which is a little tricky but, again, there’s help out there.
        • Install the Google XML SItemap Generator plugin. This helps search engines like Google index your blog and, hopefully, show it when somebody searches for it. You can check that Google is crawling the website OK by typing “” into a google search box. Can you see your blog listed? Cool! You can read a clear explanation of this here. Go to Q1.
        • Set up a Site Redirect button on your old blog. You have to pay $18 a year for this but a year of redirects is probably enough. I think it’s money well spent. For example, people have linked to my blogposts from their websites. If somebody clicks on those links, they go to my old website which is not what I want. With the site redirect set up, they automatically get sent to the same post on my NEW website.
        • I’m a journalist rather than an entrepreneur so I’m not looking to monetise my blog or generate a huge amount of traffic. But I do want people to find me and I do want the information displayed on search engines to encourage people to click on my blog. So I strongly recommend the All in One SEO plugin. You don’t have to delve into the Dark Arts of SEO but it is useful to have a few tricks up your sleeve and this plugin does that. For example, I like to be able to rewrite the metadescription underneath the title and URL of each post. This is what should be displayed in searches.
          If you don’t write the metadescription yourself, Google just grabs a fairly random bit of text from your post and shoves it there. But be warned! Your changes to meta descriptions etc won’t show up instantly. Again, you have to be patient and wait until Google comes your way and sees the changes. It could take several weeks, I’m afraid.There are other things this plugin will do which you can explore at your leisure….
        • Now you want to spend a moment sorting out your permalinks. This is how the URL of each web post will look. WordPress has a weird default mode which you will probably want to change. In default mode, it just gives your blogpost a boring number rather than the title you carefully wrote. This website by Yoast explains it well. Follow the instructions in Section 1.1.
        • What I liked about was the social media aspect. There were easy-to-install share and like buttons so readers could share your blog posts on Facebook, Twitter etc. I also liked the stats. That stuff doesn’t come with your new blog but there’s an easy way to get it – the JetPack by WordPress Plugin. According to the blurb, JetPack will “supercharge your WordPress site with powerful features previously only available to users.”
          It’s really easy to install and there are lots of bits you can customise and add. Nothing too complicated and all pretty self-explanatory, I’d say.
        • I suggest installing the Aksimet plugin to deal with spam comments on your blog. It’s a slightly involved process getting your API key but not technically demanding. You can do it!

So, I reckon if you do all that, you should be good to go. You still need to be patient though. A google search for “LizHannaford” was still showing my OLD blog with no sign of my NEW one eight days after I’d set it up. Then it appeared and disappeared for a day – which was almost worse. I’m glad to report that on day nine (time of writing), it seems to have settled down. But it can take even longer than this.

Now the fun stuff!

This is where all your hard work becomes worthwhile!

My favourite bit was creating the Recent Pins in my blog’s sidebar. I had a look round various blogs for ideas and liked this one best from It’s a little TOO cute for my needs on her blog but the css styling works great and I really like how it looks. There are plenty of other ideas around!

Finally, the reason I started this journey in the first place – Storify. I installed the Storify embed plugin. There are others. This one works very simply. I just paste the URL of the Storify into my blog post and it’s there! So I spent some time going back through my old blog posts redoing them with this new method because it just looks better.

There are loads more things I’d like to play around with and now that I’ve finally got Google’s attention, I’m going to enjoy doing that.

How Codecademy changed my life.

So I’ve just finished the HTML/CSS track of Codecademy and I’m left wondering how I’m going to fill my evenings now it’s over. I really enjoyed it – instantly practical and useful and I recommend it to all journalists!

But instead of twiddling my thumbs or spending my evenings watching endless episodes of Nordic Noir I decided to think about how Codecademy has changed my life. That’s not a flippant statement. It’s actually true. I first started it about eighteen months ago following the Javascript track. It opened my eyes onto a whole new world! Work commitments meant I didn’t complete the Javascript course (I started to flounder once we got onto OOP) and I do need to get back into it before I forget everything I ever learnt.

6 Ways Codecademy Changed my life

  1. Evangelism

    I realised how important this stuff was – not just for an old hack like me but for EVERYONE! It’s not boring and it’s not that hard. I started to think about how I could spread the word. What could I do to help other people who had never learnt how to code? What could I do to help my daughters learn to code because school wasn’t going to teach them?

  2. Pinterest board

    I made a Pinterest board of some of the resources I was finding as I voyaged round the internet looking for programming help for beginners. It’s got followers! Pinterest is a really great way to share resources – much more enticing than a list of hyperlinks, for example.

  3. CodeClub

    Doing Codecademy gave me the confidence to set up a CodeClub at my daughters’ primary school. I’ve got a couple of real experts on hand to help with the clever stuff but I think the children like the fact that I’m learning too.

  4. Teaching my daughters

    photo-57I’m not patient enough for home educating normally but some of my enthusiasm for learning to code has rubbed off on my daughters. This makes me very happy.

    Related Links

  5. Blogging
    This blog has morphed from a blog about journalism education to a blog about learning to code and generally getting techy. I’m thinking about migrating to….. It’s got to be done, hasn’t it??
  6. Journo-coders

    I’ve become really interested in the rise of the journo-coder in newsrooms. Who are these people and how did they get to be this way? Should journalism departments at universities be doing more to create journo-coders?

    Related Links

So those are a few thoughts about how I’ve changed since starting to teach myself code. I’d love to hear your stories too! Never, ever stop learning new stuff because it will open up surprising new doors and keep you away from the TV.