Data journalism in Africa: Justin Arenstein talks digital innovation on a budget

Investigative data journalist, Google consultant and Knight International Journalism Fellow, Justin Arenstein, is currently working with the African Media Initiative (AMI) to expand digital journalism experimentation in newsrooms across Africa.

He spoke with WAN-IFRA research fellow, Julie Posetti, about using basic mobile technology, minimal staff and next-to-no funding to help newsrooms across Africa create life-saving data journalism.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | May 21, 2014

What are your key objectives in terms of identifying projects and then acting with regards to data journalism in developing countries?

ArensteinWith all of our projects… we say, are they citizen-focused? Is this an indulgence of a politics desk, which thinks it’s a sexy project they would have fun doing, or does it really speak to the pain in citizens’ lives? Is it trying to solve something that keeps a normal audience of a normal media company awake at night? Things like school fees and access to health care. Secondly, is it action-orientated? In other words, is it going to give people actionable information that they can do something with?

We do try to do things that could be used as a benchmark or a comparator in another country… like medicine pricing, educational data, elicit money flow data, that kind of stuff. …Obviously the other thing is… that data projects are expensive… [so we] try and build evergreen projects. If you’re going to spend time scraping, collating, cleaning then try and target the kind of data that can be used multiple times or remain as a long-term [resource.]

Can you give us a couple of tangible examples of recent projects you’ve developed?

Arenstein: [We have some] very small projects with a very small team, a very small budget, but tackling a very big problem. Ghana is undergoing new oil wealth… These oil extraction companies are supposed to be paying three percent of the money they make from the oil back to the affected communities. It should be going to a local authority and the local authority should use it to build and improve the lives of local citizens… The reality is that hasn’t been happening.

The money was siphoned elsewhere?

Arenstein: It sat in an expense account, the government wasn’t spending this money…because of capacity problems… The data allowed [people to] send in the name of their village (via SMS). They could find out how this impacts ‘me as an individual’. Then people get outraged.

[Then] we then built another second set of data tools, SMS tools, that allowed the audience to… send an SMS to the relevant minister or authority, effectively signing a petition to do something about this. In other words, positive constructive action. That’s where we step across the line from being traditional journalists…We allow communities to find themselves and mobilise themselves. Journalists were then able to monitor this data and were able to zero-in on communities that were actually doing something, and then it feeds back into the news cycle.

Can you tell me a bit about what project you’re working on now with the World Editors Forum for your upcoming digital journalism masterclass during our Torino conference?

Arenstein: The leading cause of death in rural Africa is water-borne diseases…you’re drinking it out of a river, a downstream-of-sewage kind of problem. So we’re using the cameras in phones to build microscopes that can magnify and then analyse the contaminates in water, specifically looking for the things that cause cholera, E. Coli and various others, and then sending out an SMS to locals, who are invariably women, whose job it is to walk and fetch water from the river, telling them when it’s contaminated, when it’s at dangerous levels, and give them options to go somewhere else that’s clean.

These are the kinds of resources and analysis that not even governments are capable of doing at the moment with the problems that they face. …The reality is people are drinking from these rivers multiple times per day. We’re looking at doing this with a small budget with devices that could be built in any country, by any newsroom, resulting in data that any newsroom would be able to analyse and turn into stories.

You’re saying that you actually have technology that is able to test the water and then upload the outcomes of those tests to the web for journalists to investigate and report? That’s quite extraordinary…

Arenstein: Multiple times per day for the cost of an SMS. …The idea is because we’ve got multiple sensors, you could triangulate where the contamination comes from so if it’s a municipal sewage works that has burst the banks of the river, you could effectively rechart to local citizens in that area and say, “could you get us a picture?” rather than flying or driving in a reporting team. In very rural areas this means getting someone to drive four or five hundred kilometres at great expense, which is why it doesn’t happen.

We’re hearing about the trend for Western newsrooms struggling with legacy business models to launch premium offers – which might involve discounted tickets to festivals or preview cinema screenings – to attract readers, and you’re talking about monetising actual public interest outcomes and services in developing countries…

Arenstein: In our world, people don’t have electricity or piped water. They’re really not going to stump up money to see Hugh Grant or anyone else. What these people need in their lives is an information service. How can we…provide that service and then once we’ve provided [it] how can we mine that and turn that into journalism? On top of that, we’re also building a citizen-reporting app that allows people then who are in a contaminated area to potentially send us video or photograph of images that could be turned into news reporting and then we can start paying contributors to the citizen media.

You’ve talked a lot about very economical, high impact projects. What is your view on the kinds of investments that are being made in very expensive, multi-layered projects such as Snowfall that are often discussed Western contexts compared to those that you were talking about?

Arenstein: In my world, which is kind of Latin America, Africa and potentially India, it’s indulgence. It’s an indulgence that we can’t really afford but that doesn’t mean that we don’t do data visualisation. So [instead of] doing a Firestorm, we would rather look at recurrent stories, stories that happen every year so things around public expenditure and budgets and try and figure out a template around telling those stories in a more meaningful way… we’re building a framework like you have with Snowfall and that you can repackage and re-skin multiple times to tell those kinds of stories.

You can find the links an more information about these projects on the Code for Africa website.

Justin Arenstein will run a digital journalism masterclass for registered participants during the World Editors Forum conference in Torino next month. If you are interested in registering, please email: 

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