Data Journalism in Developing Countries: Getting Beyond the Hype

August 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

One groups visualizes when it is best to use radio to explain data instead of charts

One group visualizes when it is best to convey data findings over radio instead of charts depending on the audience’s data literacy and reliance on traditional media for information.


Data journalism has tremendous potential to drive transparency and reveal corruption in developing countries and many donors are funding data journalism as a means to good governance and transparency. The Defining and Designing Successful Data Journalism Initiatives in Developing Countries session at the 2014 Open Knowledge Festival focused on what it takes to grow a sustainable data community. In groups composed of journalists, developers, CSO representatives and other open advocates, we evaluate the most common strategies such as conferences, boot camps, fellowships, hackathons and reporting grants and discussed openly whether they had produced concrete data journalism that has had a social and policy impact.

To kick things off, I shared my own perspective on successes and failures by the media development community. The fastest and cheapest way to try to introduce data journalism is through Data Journalism Boot Camps. The model is based on the belief that a week-long (or sometimes three-day) training in the fundamentals of data journalism would give journalists just the push they needed to start fighting corruption through awesome visuals and news apps. But, just as a one-week conventional boot camp can hardly be expected to produce a special ops unit, the workshops do not produce a cadre of global journo-coders and what’s worse, they often gloss over topics like privacy, statistical errors and ethical reporting. In fact, many boot camps never result in a single data-driven story, despite a flurry of Twitter traffic that suggested that places like Nigeria, Nepal, and Bolivia are the next rising stars in data journalism.

My contrasting success story explored the four-month fellowship model where a group of talented media professionals (journalists, a graphic designer and developer) in Kenya dedicated themselves to learning new skills and producing experimental content and storytelling for their home media outlets but working from the Internews in Kenya data desk. For us, the fellowship served several purposes. It immersed the fellows in months of intensive training as each module built up their cumulative skills; it introduced them to data sources, including think tanks and government, that the journalists could use for stories when they returned to their media outlets; and it encouraged them to work as a team to complete two major investigations each, which they published before the end of the fellowship and earned them a reputation as data journalists.

Next, the 50+ participants worked in groups to identify their most illustrative examples of success and failures to help others design smarter activities. Examples included great budget visualizations that engaged the public through the media, but only one person on the team actually knew how to use the software to produce the visualization. On the flip side, another group had created a website to visualize aid data but nobody ever accessed the site and those who did found it confusing. Both of these experiences illustrated the need to establish who needs to be trained to ensure a viable product that can be maintained after the initial launch and how the target audience consumes news, which, in the case of many of our participants, is offline.

A common theme addressed difficulties in bringing together developers and journalists on projects. One group sited a successful example of a mapping platform in Latin America that superimposes environmental journalism stories on maps of environmental data such as protected zones and mining areas. This way, both data and traditional storytelling are present on the same platform. Another group paired an NGO that designed and implemented a public opinion poll with journalists who published the results. In both cases, the developers and statisticians generating data stuck with the skills they were good at while the journalists became more data literate but were not expected to become journo-coders in order to report on data.

Another participant from South Africa highlighted the challenges of embedding coders in newsrooms, who generally end up either isolated or overwhelmed by newsrooms either indifferent to data or too demanding for digital products. This experience echoes embedded coder challenges faced by a similar program in Kenya. Overall, participants shared honestly and openly about successes and failures and advocated for more “Fail Faire” type events where practitioners share knowledge and experiences not only with each other but also with donors.

These were the overall conclusions:

  1. Sustainable data journalism activities require the buy-in of journalists, developers, editors and publishers
  2. Finding good matches between media outlets, CSOs and developers all committed to data are key to productive collaborations
  3. How people consume information should dictate narrative or visual form of data products
  4. Data journalism requires teamwork, whether inside or outside of the newsroom
  5. Mentoring and consulting data experts can help avert mistakes in data analysis and interpretation
  6. Storytelling to convey data helps people understand and connect with the issue
  7. Not a lot of resources are available for data journalism tailored to developing country contexts
  8. Data integrity is an emerging issue of concern as data journalism increases in popularity
  9. Topics, projects or specific production goals can help make data journalism activities more realistic and achievable
  10. Sharing lessons learned is essential to designing more effective data journalism activities

To learn more about how to design data journalism initiatives in developing countries, check out the session Etherpad and my blog post for Knight Mozilla Open News Source on Developing Data Journalists in the Developing World.

Flattr this!