Written By Allen Hillery
Amber Thomas is a Sr. Journalist-Engineer at The Pudding. They are a collective team that believes visual essays are an emerging form of journalism. They work hard to perpetuate the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Data journalism sits at the intersection of data analysis, data visualization and storytelling. The Pudding’s goal is to use these super powers to bring us stories we didn’t know we needed! I had a chance to discuss with Amber her career path and how she segued from marine biologist to data journalist. As she shares her story, she reflects on two things that serve as her North star along her journey; curiosity and her passion for sharing with others what she’s learned.
Allen Hillery: Can you share with us your journey to becoming a Senior Journalist Engineer at The Pudding?
Amber Thomas: I actually started my journey in a field one wouldn’t think connects with data journalism: marine biology!
In the beginning. I studied marine biology & chemistry in college and continued on to obtain a Master’s degree in Marine Sciences. Throughout this time I was doing lots of research, learning about how to properly set up experiments, analyze data and conduct statistical analysis, write about my findings, and communicate my research to other scientists and the general public.
After graduation. I began working as a researcher at an aquarium, studying the animals that lived there and, when possible, providing new information that would help others provide the animals better care. Like my work in grad school, working in an aquarium required me to be able to communicate my research to guests and I began creating visuals to show guests that would help make communicating complex topics a little easier.
A few years later. I decided that I wanted to shift my career field to something that allowed a little more flexibility in my schedule and provided a little more financial security. In reflecting on the parts of my job that I enjoyed, I found that I gravitated towards data analysis, the creation of visualizations, and communicating complex topics.
Data science might be a good fit. So, I started brushing up on my data skills, enrolled in online classes, and began completing personal projects to both strengthen my new skills and to add them to a portfolio for potential employers to see. I felt like my data skills may have been underestimated because of my background, so creating a portfolio online was a great way to showcase my skills. I used to share my personal projects on Twitter, looking for feedback or just generally sharing what I was working on, and (very luckily for me), one of these tweets was seen by Quincy Larson, creator of Free Code Camp.
Quincy Larson liked my tweet. He asked if I would consider re-writing the blog post I had created for a specific project for the Free Code Camp’s Medium page, which, at the time, had around 140k followers. I agreed and the piece ended up getting quite a bit more media attention than I had anticipated, with a handful of outlets reaching out to me about working on “data journalism” projects with them. At the time, I hadn’t even realized that “data journalism” was a thing, so I figured out what that was quickly and looked more deeply into what others were doing.
Then one day. I stumbled upon a brand new online publication at the time called The Pudding. I reached out, asking about freelance contributions and was lucky enough that they were willing to work with me. I freelanced with them for a few months and then joined full time a few months later. I’ve been telling visual data stories with them ever since!
Matt Daniels, Jan Diehm, Amber Thomas, and Russell Goldenberg pose with the Digital Journalism Award on behalf of “The Pudding” at the Peabody-Facebook Futures Of Media Awards on May 18, 2018 in New York City. Credit: Getty Images
AH: That’s an interesting story! I’m a firm believer that everything we do in life sets us up for the next leg of our journey. How do you see your career choices preparing you for your role today?
AT: Honestly, just about everything I’ve done has set me up to do the work I do now. I don’t think I’d be as comfortable with designing experiments or knowing how to properly analyze data without all the time I spent in the science field. My communication skills have also massively improved throughout my career. Believe it or not, I was a super shy kid 😉 And early in my career, I fell into the all-too-common science trap of communicating my work using too much jargon and explaining concepts in a robotic way, rather than figuring out how to bring the audience along on a journey. I had always been so excited about my work, so figuring out ways to share that excitement with my audience has made me a better storyteller.
AH: What is your typical day like working at The Pudding?
AT: Our days honestly vary pretty widely depending on how many projects we’re working on at a time and what stage we’re at in those projects. There are days when I spend almost all of my time in R, collecting or cleaning data. And then there are weeks that pass where I don’t touch R at all, focusing more on design tasks in tools like Figma or coding out the final front-end visualization for the web.
AH: During your career journey, I like how you took stock of the pieces of your previous jobs that you enjoyed the most like data analysis, data visualization and storytelling. Is it accurate to say that data journalism sits at the intersection of these skill sets?
AT: Yes, definitely. Especially on a small team like The Pudding where we each can do “all the things”. That is, we each have the ability to do data collection and analysis, story design, writing of prose, and front-end web development.
AH: One reason that I feel you are an expert on the career segue is your latest Pudding Project, “Welcome to the Cloud Zoo” Can you discuss the journey of putting that project together and the technical complexity behind it?
AT: I’ll try to keep this succinct! The story idea actually came to me from RJ Andrews of Info We Trust in early 2020. He had suggested that someone should make a “virtual zoo” that housed all of the live stream webcams from zoos around the world in one place. A few months later, I realized how much I loved the idea and he and I started working on a way to make it a reality. Largely, RJ focused on how the piece should look and feel while I handled the more technical aspects of it.
For me, this piece was relatively technically complex, mostly because it was using tools that were new to me. We wanted to showcase live streams from zoos, but didn’t want to overload the servers on zoos’ websites by finding a way to embed all of their streams on our site. There were also nearly 100, which would have crashed our page if we attempted to play them all at once. We decided instead to write a script that visited each of the zoo and aquarium live streams throughout the day, captured 15 screenshots, combined those into an animated gif, and played the gifs directly in our “digital zoo”. This way, it was only one “visitor” on each zoo and aquarium site for only a few seconds a few times a day, which hopefully doesn’t negatively impact their services at all. I used Microsoft Playwright to collect the screenshots and Heroku to deploy the script a few times every day. Once that was finally working, we spent a while creating the front-end experience and figuring out how to weave in RJ’s beautiful floating island artwork with the gifs that were coming from the live streams, and how to make that all responsive and mobile friendly! It was a beast of a project, but one I’m still really excited about.
AH: What do you recommend for someone looking to become a journalist engineer and where do you see the future of the space in the coming years? Will it remain a niche or expand across media?
AT: Oh, this is such a hard question! I typically recommend someone wanting to get into this space to flex their storytelling skills before focusing too hard on learning specific programming languages. You can use any number of programs or languages to create visuals that help you tell a story (our whole company exists in part because of a viral viz that was originally created in Powerpoint!) But learning to find story ideas that can be told using data, or actually figuring out how to communicate information using a combination of words and visuals is sometimes a tricky skill and one that really only gets easier with practice.
As far as where I see the future of data journalism in the coming years, that’s much harder to tell! I suppose the role is relatively niche at the moment, but it seems like more and more journalism outlets are including data and visualizations in their work these days. And we’re definitely seeing a lot of data viz entering the “public consciousness” with COVID over the past year or so, so I’d almost argue that it’s already expanding across different forms of media and out of niche circles.