AMA with Code for Africa

Conversations with Data: #35

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After our trip to Southeast Asia last month, we started thinking about what data journalism looks like in other regions as, say, Africa?

And what better way to find out, than by letting you quiz the data team from Code for Africa!

Code for Africa, or CfA, runs the continent’s largest network of civic tech and open data labs, with teams across Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. Their projects focus on empowering citizen engagement, including by uplifting data literacy in the media and opening up data for better use by the region’s journalists.

Here’s what they had to say.

What you asked

Africa is a data-scarce region, with little really granular local data. How do you do data journalism when you're often working in a data vacuum?

Justin Arenstein, founder and CEO: “CfA has projects like sensors.AFRICA and africanDRONE where we work with newsrooms and with partner communities to create hyperlocal data for everything from air and water pollution, to mapping data to better understand flooding, climate change, etc. Additionally, we have Sea Sensors which is pioneering the use of hydrophones (underwater microphones) to track illegal dynamite fishing.”


africanDRONE supports the use of drones to highlight civic issues. Credit: Johnny Miller, africanDRONE.

“We do have other data-creation initiatives, such as gazeti.AFRICA where we turn 'deadwood' government records into digital data and sourceAFRICA where we help investigative newsrooms digitise their source documents.”

Likewise, what does data journalism look like on a continent where many people don't have access to broadband internet or smart devices: is it data visualisation, or something else?

“Code for Africa builds data driven news tools, like Ezolwaluko and HealthTools, which underpin our data driven reportage and aim to give audiences actionable information so that they can turn their insights from the stories into real-world decisions. These tools are also accessible to people on SMS. CfA, therefore, does data journalism for text audiences too.”

How do you deal with conflicting data sources?

Emma Kisa, data journalist and fact-checker: “For conflicting data, we consider the source. Official government sources for census data, demographic health surveys and ministerial reports take precedence, as well as trusted data collectors such as the World Bank and the UN. However, if both sources are official and trusted, then we consider the latest data released.”

With your team split between various countries, across multiple time zones, how does that work from a production point of view?

“Our team uses multi-platform messaging apps and visual collaboration tools like Slack, Trello and Github to coordinate our work, with daily stand-ups, agile sprints, and the occasional audio or video calls. We avoid emails because of overflowing inboxes which have a mixture of internal and external messages. The apps gather messages in channels, encourage [real-time] brainstorming, enable rapid communication, reduce email and allow third-party integrations hence multiplying their use.”

Based on your training work, what’s the best way for newbies to get started with data reporting?

Soila Kenya, data journalist, fact-checker and trainer: “Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets might be a good place to start stretching your data analysis muscles. It can be intimidating to see all the coding languages on offer for data journalists such as Python and R. Spreadsheets can be a stepping stone to using those advanced programs and you can still analyse and visualise data to add into your reporting. Check out this simple course that Code for Africa built where you can learn how to use spreadsheets as a journalist.”

Jacopo Ottaviani, Chief Data Officer: “There are plenty of resources available online to get your hands dirty with data reporting, even if you have no familiarity with coding or computing. For example, the Data Journalism Handbook is a good start. Many data journalism tools such as Datawrapper, Flourish or Workbench do not require coding skills.”

How can data journalists outside of Africa better report on the region?

Soila Kenya: “Collaboration is key. A lot of context is lost in datasets and maps and numbers. Journalists on the continent can help provide the nuances surrounding the topic you are tackling. Data journalism is still journalism and journalism is storytelling. Your story needs to be multidimensional by including the voices of the affected.”

Tricia Govindasamy, Product Manager - Data: “For data journalism projects, you need to make use of a user-centric design. Identify and understand the problem that people in Africa are experiencing, and find a suitable solution for them. An example of this are a health information tool in Kenya and Bornperfect which is a female genital mutilation information site. You need to empathise with the Africans that you are reporting on and for this, there are various user centric design approaches available online.”


HealthTools is a suite of data driven web and SMS-based tools that help citizens check everything from medicine prices and hospital services, to whether their doctor is a quack or not.

Jacopo Ottaviani: “Also read as much as possible about Africa from a variety of sources. For example, we recommend subscribing to the Quartz Africa weekly brief newsletter and maybe read this evergreen piece”.

For more by Code for Africa, follow them on Twitter or explore their projects on GitHub.

Our next conversation

Building on the coding advice from our last edition, we’re curious about what happens when code turns into a powerful story. Or, to be more specific, when an API does. That’s right, for our next conversation, we’ll be highlighting cool examples of journalism based on APIs. Submit your work, or nominate someone else’s, using this form.

As always, don’t forget to comment with what (or who!) you’d like us to feature in our future editions.

Until next time,

Madolyn from the EJC Data team

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