African newsrooms shy away from data

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Newsrooms need data journalism to improve the quality and credibility of their work, writes Paul Wafula 

Paul Wafula

Paul Wafula

Data journalism is a news source that journalists will need to make use of not only to reinvent their field but also to find exclusive stories that can help sell their publications.

Sadly Kenyan newsrooms have, however, not fully embraced it. There is scepticism that stories  can come out of anything other than an interview or report.  Some editors also feel that data journalism supersedes the role of an expert and worry that if the data is something a journalist has scrapped on their own there will be nobody to attribute it to.

The need to always attribute to an external source is borne out of a fear that if problems arise  with the data, publications will not be able to say this is not our report but someone else’s. But I believe that data journalism helps journalists to take ownership of their work and provides a platform for them to be more transparent. This can only help to develop the industry and generate topical and exclusive stories.

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Data journalism also certainly helps to build relationships with experts and officials that can only strengthen a journalist’s list of contacts and give them credibility. Why do I say that? When I worked on my story on health budgets in Kenyan counties I relied on experts in health statistics. Different government departments and agencies produce different bits of the same data but it’s not coordinated or integrated. I approached each one and by pulling their data together on the same spreadsheet I was able to collate statistics on  what each county had budgeted for health and if this fit the national health goals. But this wasn’t my only stop.

I approached some organisations and researchers who helped point out what was missing in my data and how to analyse it correctly, which eliminated inaccuracies. Journalists must be aware that they can tell a wrong story from the data that they have. Bouncing the story to someone  helps to eliminate problems of having inaccurate or incomplete data and build relationships with people who can point journalists to other datasets that they can use for future stories. It will also reassure their editors and company lawyers who may worry of lawsuits.

   Numbers don’t lie

Data journalism  also raises the integrity to stories and  makes it difficult to dispute what papers publish. I found this difference when I published my health and other stories. The data was indisputable. It spoke for itself resulting in counties revising their budgets. Government public relations machines can easily deny or dispute stories if they are not supported by any data.

But with data, a story is not only credible but can generate impact that allows journalists to effectively play their role as society’s watchdogs. My story led to two strikes by nurses and doctors because it made it clear that hospitals and counties would not able to pay their salaries because of the budget deficits. This shows the story’s  impact and also illustrates how data journalism can be used to predict a crisis before it happens.

Data journalism is the future. In this age of social media journalists need to reinvent  news reporting. Data journalism makes the reinvention possible as it allows publications to provide their readers with stories they can not find elsewhere.

Paul Wafula is a data journalist for The Standard in Kenya. His infographics on how the 47 Kenyan counties had under-budgeted on their health spending in their rush to meet the 30 June 2013 deadline set by the Public Finance Management Act  is here on his blog.

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Lending a helping hand to data journalists

Community, The stories

Organisation spearheads collaboration between programmers and journalists to help the latter acquire data journalism skills.

Data journalism is increasingly becoming a popular form of journalism. Its potential in helping scribes tell a compelling story has seen an exponential growth in projects that involve data journalism across the world. But in South Africa, this form of journalism is lagging behind due to a lack of skills. A group of geeks, has however, developed a project that seeks to train journalists to work with data.

Photo credit: Rob Enslin. Project to build data journalism teams in South African newsrooms

Adi Eyal who leads Code for South Africa, the organisation that is leading the project, speaks about this new venture they will embark on this month.

Tell us about Code for South Africa

We are an organisation that is pushing for open data in South Africa. We don’t have a culture of questioning, engaging and using information and we want to change that. Our role is to promote the use of data.

We are focused on finding answers to questions like how do we start to get people using the data that already exists? How can people use available information to make decisions about where they live or where they should send their child to school? We are focused on making people to use the information available to make informed decisions.

Where does the journalism project fit in and why the media initiative?

Journalists come to us and say they need skills. This is in response to that.

What will the media initiative involve?

This is a project that will run for six months. We will work to build data journalism teams in selected newsrooms. There are people already working as designers, software developers and journalists within newsrooms. We will create teams out of these and teach them how to work with data, where they can get it, how to clean it and what to use it for. The teams members’ different skill set should complement each other and help their publications use data to tell compelling stories. We are trying to create rock star teams out of the people that newsrooms have.

Photo credit: Sean MacEntee. Data is a tool for telling a story

What data skills do newsrooms need?

Being able to access data and visualise data is important. Journalists must also have a maturity about data. This sounds touchy feely but data journalism is about understanding how to take a project from concept and what you require to turn it to a final product, which can be  cumbersome.

Data journalism has a project managerial component. One needs to see the process from start to finish.

There is need to understand and interpret it. Journalists must also verify the data because it can’t be trusted by itself.

All those skills are important.

Where can journalists find data? Where do you find yours?

There is a lot of information that is already available from various websites. It comes from the different places, such as municipality and government websites. We put it together in one place and turn it to a product that is easy to use.

Can you give us an example of one such product that you have developed?

We have developed a medical price database. Medicine prices are regulated in South Africa meaning there is a maximum amount customers should pay but people don’t know that.

We have built a mobile app that allows people to punch in the name of a medicine and it will tell them what the regulated price is and see if the pharmacy is charging that.

How easy is it to find data?

It’s not easy. There is no official open data policy. There is data that is available but no process through which data is made accessible. The Promotion of Access to Information Act insists that data must be made available rather than government proactively release it.

This is not an effective way of getting information. The process requires you to contact an information officer of the respective department from which you are seeking information. Sometimes their email bounces or they do not respond to emails. Requests can also be ignored or rejected on baseless grounds. You can appeal but that is a time consuming and expensive process. It doesn’t make it the best way of extracting data.

Any advice for data journalists?

Photo: Esther Vargas. Journalists need to be proactive in learning data skills

Journalists in South Africa can join their local hackshackers, which provides a platform for journalists and data programmers to get together to talk about data journalism projects.

Meet up with other people from your profession and from a completely different world.

It is wrong to think that just because you are not a software developer you can’t be involved.

There also needs to be more data stories. Build skills to help you dig below surface and use tools that can help ordinary readers understand the information you are relating.