Africa is not a newsroom: Media Party Africa

The most important goal of the inaugural Media Party Africa, held in Cape Town, South Africa in October 2016, was to foster a community of passion around the beautiful possibilities of digital journalism. So there was an emphasis on things like drone and sensor journalism, new ways of telling stories and reaching new audiences (such as Virtual Reality and 360º video), and the opportunities for preserving the best of investigative journalism while creating new standards for a changing digital environment.

Also important was centring those new technologies and ideas in a pan-African context. Many are tired of people trying to impose models on the newsrooms of different African countries as if, firstly, those newsrooms were homogenous (‘Africa is a newsroom’, if you will), and secondly, as if the multiple environments were on an evolutionary track necessarily equivalent to those of the West. So it was hugely important to us that we brought experts from different African countries to talk about their hyperlocal experiences, as well as experts from other continents who were attuned to the sensitivities of making sense of emergent technologies amidst disparate cultures.

Also vital was crafting a sense of optimism around the sustainability of great journalism, and the enduring power of journalism to do good. To this end, we invited NGOs, donors and civic tech organisations to engage in a dialogue of ideas and opportunity with people from the media. One of the confrontational highlights was Mohamed Nanabhay of the Media Development Investment Fund, and Miguel Castro of the Gates Foundation, on stage and berating the media professionals in the audience for not coming to them with ideas for projects that suited the new age of digital immediacy, measurable impact, and young audiences.

Perhaps the most satisfying part of the conference was the pervasive sense that innovation is relatively meaningless if it isn’t informed by the political and the pragmatic. Several speakers, including Vox Media’s Kainaz Amaria, ESPN’s Latoya Peterson, and Huffington Post South Africa’s Verashni Pillay and Deshnee Subramany, spoke forcefully to issues of representation and diversity.

The partisan nature of technologies is something that isn’t always acknowledged, and it was intriguing to see that surfaced again and again. Aligned to this, of course, is the constant battle to achieve diversity in the technology world, and one of Media Party’s challenges was trying to make sure that it was as representative as possible. While we didn’t do abysmally in terms of what we’re whimsically calling White Men vs I’m not a White Man (46% to 54%), and in terms of gender diversity (33% female/67% male), there is obviously still a lot of work to be done in terms of the numbers for overall diversity (41% black/59% white). We plan to use lessons learnt from this year’s Media Party to dramatically improve this in 2017. One of the solutions will be to issue invites a lot earlier, to avoid the problems caused by the long visa application processes that South Africa imposes on visitors from other African countries. It’s also become clear that you need to book the rockstars of our media and technology world way, way in advance.

The third lesson, though, is the most obvious: try harder. There are many brilliant people doing amazing things out there, and all we need to do is find them. To that end, we’ll be crowdsourcing, way in advance (February, to be exact), suggestions for speakers around our core topics of interest. The interactions at Media Party Africa made it very clear that collaboration is not only one of the key elements to doing the new, cross-border types of investigations and projects that are the happy result of taking advantage of the opportunities that new digital developments bring. Collaboration is also the way we are going to change the faux-fundamental ideological and systemic structures of media and technology for the better.

As Vox Media’s Kainaz Amaria wrote in a roundup after the event, “What set Media Party Africa apart from the journalism conferences I’ve attended back home was the feeling of cooperation, of truly sharing ideas without the subtext of competition, and the pace and speed of innovation.”

Kainaz Amaria (Vox Media)

There were some great presentations, and many of them were refreshingly short. Borrowing a format pioneered by our friends at Media Party Buenos Aires (the original Media Party people, who unselfishly shared their brand, structures and advice with us in the spirit of south to south cooperation), we had a bunch of five minute quicktalks. We also instituted a no-questions rule for much of the conference, on the premise that too many questions at conferences are about self-aggrandisement, or even worse, polite interventions. Instead, we encouraged interaction with speakers and delegates in chill areas, around coffee tables, or while constructing fabulous edifices with the massive lego set that mysteriously appeared on the first day.

In the spirit of less talk, more action, there were 18 hours of workshops to 10 hours of talks. A look at the most popular workshops gives a rough indication of where young, modern African media practitioners think they should be heading, with workshops on making 360º video, going from ugly datasets to beautiful data visualisations, and design thinking, in the top four. The other member of the most popular list was the innovationAFRICA fund workshop, a masterclass in what sort of entries would be optimal for the million dollar innovation challenge. The innovateAFRICA challenge is focussed on finding disruptive digital ideas, tools and strategies to improve the way that news is collected, created and disseminated, and this struck a chord. In the simplest sense, winning a grant means that you have the money to get great ideas built. But the real incentive, perhaps, is that young journalists can give their management a reason to invest time and effort into digital innovation, by bringing them funded ideas.

(For a quick look at some of the numbers behind Media Party Africa, take a look at Ashlin Simpson’s data infogram.)

One interesting stat, which neatly shows how lessons learnt at events like Media Party Africa can make an immediate difference, is what happened after Sebastian Mondial’s talk “Stop being reckless: how to fix your bad security habits once and for all”. On the Friday before his talk, he identified 29 exposed, vulnerable computers. After his talk, the number dropped to 18 on Saturday.

Next year, Media Party Africa will be back, and it’ll be bigger and better after the lessons learnt this year. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, much of it along the lines of technology writer Nafisa Akabor’s: “I’ve been going to industry events for a decade and Media Party Africa was by a long shot the best one.We don’t normally get to hear from major newsrooms back home, and I genuinely found this one the most interesting.”

The truth is, we can’t afford to not have more events like Media Party Africa. With journalism in many African countries experiencing the same attrition as in the rest of the world, with the addition, in some cases, of hostile governments actively seeking to destroy a free press, a collaborative community, a community of passion, is vital to helping each other to create and preserve great and necessary journalism.

And, of course, thanks to the people who helped us to make Media Party Africa happen:

Media Party Africa is hosted by the continent’s largest data journalism and civic technology federation, Code for Africa, in partnership with Hacks/Hackers Africa. Together, we’re gathering some of the world’s most exciting civic technologists, digital journalists and other social justice watchdogs from across the world for three days of workshops and talks. Media Party Africa is modelled on the original Media Party, in Buenos Aires, which has been taking place annually for the last five years.

Code for Africa (CfAfrica) is the continent’s largest independent open data and civic technology initiative. We seek to build digital democracies that give citizens timely and unfettered access to actionable information that empowers them to make informed decisions and that strengthens civic engagement for improved public governance and accountability.

CfAfrica operates as a federation of autonomous country-based digital innovation organisations that support ‘citizen labs’ in nine countries and major projects in a further 15 countries. There are CfAfrica affiliate labs in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda.

CfAfrica runs Africa’s OpenGov Fellowships and also embeds Innovation Fellows into newsrooms and social justice organisations to help liberate data of public interest, or to build tools that help empower citizens.

In addition to fellowships and citizen labs, CfAfrica runs the $1 million per year#innovateAFRICA fund plus the $500,000/year #impactAFRICA fund and the $500,000/year Sandbox Fund which all award seed grants to civic pioneers for experiments with everything from camera drones and environmental sensors, to encryption for whistleblowers and data-driven semantic analysis tools for investigative watchdogs.

CfAfrica also curates continental resources such as the africanSPENDINGportal of budget transparency resources, the openAFRICAdata portal, thesourceAFRICA document repository, and the connectedAFRICA transparency toolkit for tracking the often hidden social networks and economic interests in politics.

CfAfrica is furthermore custodian of the continental 30,000 strongHacks/Hackers community, and incubates the continent’s largest investigative journalism initiative, the African Network of Centers for Investigating Reporting (which spearheaded the #PanamaPapers investigations on the continent).