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.

Crucial elements of data journalism

Data tools and advice

Data journalism is a form of investigative journalism that tells a story through graphs, maps and other infographics. Peter Aldhous, a US-based journalist, says it is also a form of investigative journalism. It isn’t just about the figures but a good data story is a combination of various elements that are explored below.

Know where to find data 

Knowing where to find data is crucial

William Shubert, a senior project coordinator at the Earth Journalism Network (EJN), says knowing where to find is a useful skill for data journalists.

Adi Eyal, the director for Code for South Africa, an organisation pushing for open data, says the starting point in looking for data is online.

Finding data online is ideal for journalists working in Africa where some governments have put controls on the type of information that can be released.

Eyal’s organisation created a site that provides information about ward councillors in Western Cape and the projects that they are working on. Some of the data was scrapped from the website of the City of Cape Town and some came from government departments. Eyal says looking for data from various sources to use in a single data story is ideal for journalists.

“There is a lot of data available. Look for data from all sorts of places,” he says.

Countries like Kenya have made it easy by creating its own open data site. In South Africa, the Promotion of Acccess to Information Act enables data enthusiasts and journalists to access information from state departments.

Scrapping data

It doesn’t end with finding the right sources of data. Quite often the data comes in a format that is not easy to extract and analyse.

No need for a headache: tutorials will show you how to scrap the data

There are also various free tools that allow journalists and other users to extract data. These include outwit hub, google refine and import.io. Using them requires knowledge. Code for South Africa is part of a network of African open data organisations. Other networks are in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya and they provide training to help journalists acquire such skills.

EJN also provides training and online resources that journalists can use. One such resource is the geojournalism handbook, which provides tutorials. Data journalism writer and trainer Paul Bradshaw also provides tutorials on his online blog.

Query the data 

Aldhous says querying the data is an important part of the journalistic process. Most journalists don’t have these kind of skills but will need to “befriend” a scientist who can help with the statistical analysis of the data, says Steve Connor, the science editor for The Independent.

Don’t take the data at face value

Querying would involve being aware of problems the data set has.

“What is missing from it? What errors does it have? Question everything. Check it out. If your mother says she loves you, you check it out,” Aldhous says.

Querying would also clear biases to ensure that that journalists “don’t debunk bad science by doing bad science,” says Deborah Cohen, the investigative editor at the BMJ.

Analysis and visualisation

Visualisation will help attract the reader to your story

Querying also involves analysis to see what trends are derived from it. Providing it in a tabular form or in an excel document can be quite daunting for the reader. There are data tools that are available that help journalists to visualise their data in a way that makes it palatable and easy to read. Such tools include Datawrapper, Geobatch, and Tableau.

Writing the story 

Be clear and concise

A data story isn’t just about the numbers. Brad Parks, the executive director of AidData, a good data story has to “break it down to something understandable.” It must be relevant and timely too, he says.

Aldhous says it must be accompanied by a compelling narrative that would be easy and enjoyable to ready.