Using Data Journalism to probe economics in the West Bank

August 27, 2014 in Data Expeditions

Ramallah Cityscape

Weeks before the current conflict erupted between Israel and Hamas, twenty Palestinian journalists came together in Ramallah for three days to use data to untangle the economic reality for Palestinians.

The fourth in a series of workshops aimed at establishing economic beat reporting in the West Bank, the Data Journalism for Economic Reporting workshop immersed journalists in the raw economic data that could provide objective, analytical content on a highly politicized local and global topic and explore viable solutions.

Watch a video from one of the workshops:

For the first time, journalists took a deeper look at the data behind buzzwords such as “economic peace” and “economic packages” that form part of the negotiation process between Israel, the Palestinians and donors. Almost immediately journalists identified cases in which a better understanding of data would have served the needs of their audience.

When the World Bank issued the report Area C and the Future of the Palestinian Economy, most journalists just reported on it using a version of the official press release Palestinians Access to Area C Key to Economic Recovery and Sustainable Growth. None requested the raw data to determine what areas of the economy have the most growth potential, what policy changes would be key in negotiating for market growth and what vocational and other educational programs could be put into place to prepare the workforce for a lifting of current restrictions.

“The language of statistics and figures are stronger and more credible,” explained Abubaker Qaret from PADECO Co, an investment firm.

Participants planned to both request the data from the World Bank study and investigate audit data from the donors who keep the Palestinian Authority afloat.

Over the course of three days, journalists practiced the skills to produce the first data-driven economic reporting in the West Bank. Trainees learned to scrape data (extract data from human-readable output) using scraper extensions, identify story angles in monthly economic data releases, answer basic questions about economic growth and government spending using Excel and visualize their findings using Google Charts.

Akram Natcha, a journalist from Al-Quds TV has a financial background but had not thought to apply some of the technical skills to his journalistic work. “This is the first time I used Excel data analysis with the aim of publishing.”

During a Google Charts visualization exercise, trainees used data scraped from PDFs downloaded from the Palestinian Ministry of Finance website to calculate and visualize which sectors of the economy experienced the largest growth during 2013.

Abubaker Qurt visualized his findings:

Trainees also compared unemployment rates and demographics to other countries in the region, calculated growth and absorption rates of the Palestinian Territories’ current workforce and calculated the per capita international aid received compared with its neighbors. They then practiced translating this information into narrative storytelling that would put a human face on pressing economic issues.

The Data Expedition that concluded the workshop focused on evaluating the Palestinian Authority’s fiscal management by examining the last three years of government expenditure data. In groups, trainees proposed and honed in on three specific questions:

  • Which government departments spend the largest portion of their budget on wages and least on implementing projects and which department is responsible for spending the most overall on staff costs?
  • How did spending on neglected areas such as cultural heritage and scientific research compare to how much was allocated by regional neighbors for those activities?
  • How do trends in investment in education correlate to results on standardized tests and growth in related economic areas?

Following the workshop, several participants pursued and published investigations into the economic impact of the heightened presence of the Israeli army in the West Bank.

“I benefited from the workshop to identify story angles through the tables,” said Rabee Dweikat a press officer at the Bank of Palestine. “I discovered new information from the data.”

The training series is funded by the US Consulate in Jerusalem.

This post is cross posted from the Internews Blog

Flattr this!