Why you should go to CAR 2011

by Andy Boyle.

It was Wednesday, March 18. The morning of the day after St. Patrick’s Day. As a college student, you tend to remember such days.

I was still at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, doing my victory lap as a fifth-year senior. Data journalism was my calling, I had discovered, and therefore I decided I needed to attend the 2009 NICAR conference. Even if it meant an 11 hour drive and 650 miles with maybe a headache.

Couldn’t afford a plane ticket, of course. Could barely afford the hotel room, let alone gas and food. Thankfully, Matt Waite and Derek Willis were sharing a room, with Matt arriving a day late. So I had a place to stay the night before my room actually opened (and was shared with two others).

Checked my car into the hotel’s garage, thinking this was a sensible choice. We’ll get back to that later.

The first day of the conference was kind of mind-boggling. Here were all of these people who I’d only known as e-mail addresses on a listserv. People who wrote these awesome stories, built these wonderful apps and did kick-ass journalism. And now I was around them and they were all incredibly nice and helpful.

I sat in on discussions about mapping, building data-driven applications, how to dissect a website (who knew many flash projects had an XML feed lurking somewhere? Well, probably most people. Not me.) and more. Derek and Matt taught a hands-on class for Django. Matt loaned me his laptop when it turned out mine was a piece of crap with an outdated OS X.

More importantly, we had time after the classes to sit around and shoot the shit. I was able to pick the brains of people who did such wonderful projects that blew me away. We chatted ideas, story methodology and more. We even made an SQL joke on a fogged out window. It was a great mix of nerdery, comradery and knowledge. Pretty sure I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t attend. At least, I wouldn’t have some of the skills, nor the large group of helpful people to ask for help when I stumble.

So. Conference ends. I’m looking at my bank account and how much it’ll cost to drive home with gas. Turns out it’s about $94 to get my car out of the garage. Matt, being the ever nice Nebraskan that he is, loaned me the cash to get my car out. And I’m able to buy enough gas to barely limp back to Nebraska.

Moral of the story? It was worth it. You need to go. You should go. It may give you the necessarily skills to get hired someday. Then you’ll be able to pay back that guy who got your car out of the garage.

I’m sad I wasn’t able to make the 2010 conference. Now I’ve got the money saved up and I’ll be able to attend the 2011, work willing. I’ll see you there. This time: No car.

Click here to learn more about the CAR 2011 conference, from Feb. 24-27.

Oh, and feel free to leave a comment down there about your thoughts on past CAR conference you attended.