Data Journalism Without Borders

A story by Marianne Bouchard

Three experts in data-driven news talk about the importance of cross border collaborations ahead of GEN’s Data Journalism Unconference.

Data journalism today, just like the rest of the news industry, is facing many challenges, from the transition to mobile and native content to monetisation, and new technologies.

Data journalists and their team often work on stories of international impact, but they rarely get the chance to exchange best practices and new models with their counterparts in other countries, let alone other continents.

As experiments and data journalism workflows are quite different in Asia-Pacific, in Africa, in Europe and in the Americas, learning from others’ experiences and building new solutions to ensure a viable future for cross border data journalism seems like a crucial next step.

Along these lines, the Global Editors Network is launching the Data Journalism Unconference, a FREE, invitation only event to discuss and tackle data journalism challenges across borders.

Organised in partnership with Thomson Reuters, with support from Google, the event will gather around 80 participants from the five continents in New York City on 10 May 2016 and stand as a unique and exclusive opportunity to exchange ideas on how teams, techniques and models vary from one country to the other, with the ultimate goal to initiate fruitful international collaborations.

At the end of the day, the shortlisted projects of the Data Journalism Awards 2016 will be revealed.

In this article, you will hear from three experts in data journalism globally: Simon Rogers, Data Editor at Google News Lab and director of the Data Journalism Awards; Eva Constantaras, data journalism adviser from Internews who trains data journalists in developing countries; and Justin Arenstein, investigative journalist and founder of Code for Africa.

Together they bring light on the state of cross-border data journalism today, the challenges faced by data journalists in developing countries and how international collaborations could help build a viable future for data journalism.


Simon Rogers, Data Editor at Google News Lab, director of the DJA 2016

“International collaborations, particularly in investigative reporting, represent a way to handle large data dumps at a time when resources are scarce.
By sharing resources across different organisations, then you’re effectively crowdsourcing within your own journalistic community.”

GEN: How is the field of data journalism doing today? Can we still talk of a buzz in newsrooms globally or has a certain fatigue started to kick in?

Simon Rogers: The same enthusiasm is still there; it’s just that the market has matured. Instead of it being a new thing, it’s become part of the fabric of newsrooms everywhere. It’s become the norm — and some of the work we’re seeing now is incredibly exciting. And that’s just in Europe and the US — around the world, data journalism is still new and developing.​

What trends and techniques do you think will shape the future of data journalism? Which organisations do you see as trend setters?

Increasingly, we are seeing specialisation within data journalism. There are still generalists out there (like me) but now we are seeing the rise of visual reporters who make graphics, developer reporters who build things, designers who work to make things beautiful. This is such an exciting time — we just don’t know what’s coming next.

How important do you think international collaborations can be in the future of data journalism worldwide?

​International collaborations, particularly in investigative reporting, represent a way to handle large data dumps at a time when resources are scarce. By sharing resources across different organisations, then you’re effectively crowdsourcing within your own journalistic community. We’ve seen the results often in recent years — as the world of business becomes more global, journalism needs to do the same.

How will the data journalism unconference organised by GEN help tackle issues and challenges faced by data journalists worldwide?

By bringing together the world’s best data journalists in an informal environment, we can start to find new ways to work together too.​

At the end of the unconference, the shortlisted projects of the Data Journalism Awards 2016 will be revealed, showcasing the best data-driven stories of the past year from around the world. As the 10 April 2016 deadline approaches, why do you think it is important for data journalists from the five continents to apply to the Data Journalism Awards?

Great work can inspire and create more great work. Entering the awards is not just about winning a prize or being recognised for your achievements; it’s about helping the rest of the world do what you do and taking it onto the next level. It’s about making us all better.


Eva Constantaras, Data Journalism Adviser at Internews

“Cross-border projects are usually unwieldy and often the focus and resources go more towards investigating the Western actors involved than pursuing accountability on the local level, where potentially there could be a much bigger impact.”

GEN: What has your experience training reporters in developing countries taught you about data journalism?

Eva Constantaras: I have learned that while there are three really significant barriers to growing data journalism in developing countries, there are three unique benefits to society that make all the trouble worth it.

The first challenge is rooted in the assumption of the role of the media itself as a public-service watchdog. The second is a simple problem of data and digital literacy among both journalists and citizens and growing those skills takes time. Third, there is not a strong financial incentive for media to decide to invest in getting to the root of inequality in their countries and identifying a chain of responsibility can be much riskier than reporting breaking news, which is still a sound business model in many countries.

“Anti-corruption stories are usually the first example of the power of data journalism.”

On the flip side, when it does click, the results can be transformational because there is so much corruption and mismanagement hidden just below the surface and citizens are hungry for accountability.

Anti-corruption stories are usually the first example of the power of data journalism. A few data journalists I worked with for five months in Kenya uncovered massive fraud in government subsidies for the poor, gross mismanagement of aid for a food crisis in Turkana and uneven distribution of health services across the country.

Paul Wafula, writing for the Standard newspaper, exposed Kenya’s parliament for holding hostage the funds or a cash transfer program for the poorest Kenyans

Second, in a country without a history of civic engagement, it gives citizens a way into public policy debate, such as in Afghanistan where journalists from Pajhwok Afghan News discovered that the domestic violence law in Afghanistan is failing because the vast majority of cases are getting sent through an ineffective mediation process. Despite being a polarizing issue, using data to tell the story introduces a way for society to have a thoughtful discussion about the problem of domestic violence.

“A little data can go a long way, but only once we successfully overcome challenges inherent in working in developing country media environments first.”

Third, it opens the door for journalists and civil society to collaborate on fixing society’s ills together by working together as an open data community with a purpose, and a purpose that has nothing to do with hackathons or boot camps but are rather on getting the essential information out there.

In other words, a little data can go a long way, but only once we successfully overcome challenges inherent in working in developing country media environments first.

What do you think is working, or in the contrary not working, in the way cross-border data journalism projects are done today?

In an increasingly globalized world where stories jump borders and there is a dearth of quality international reporting because of the ongoing media industry crisis, cross-border collaboration is a natural next step. The underlying logic of cross-border collaborations builds on discrete, non-competing audiences in different media markets, with localized content for each audience.

But these cross-border projects are usually unwieldy and often the focus and resources go more towards investigating the Western actors involved than pursuing accountability on the local level, where potentially there could be a much bigger impact. Partner media outlets or freelance journalists are often treated as stringers who provide local flavor and victim stories but don’t carry out the bulk of the data driven investigation themselves.

These investigations could be ground-breaking on the national level but instead they end up as just another example of development reporting that leads to a lot of head shaking by Western audiences but not a lot of accountability or solutions.

What I see work very well is when journalists collaborate on a joint dataset but the bulk of the resources are put towards supporting journalists at the national level to localize the stories and investigate the local actors implicated by the database.

Team of journalists from 45 countries unearths secret bank accounts maintained for criminals, traffickers, tax dodgers, politicians and celebrities

The International Consortium of Investigative JournalistsOffshore Leaks, Swiss Leaks and Luxembourg Leaks engaged journalists from over 100 countries to investigate how a database of secret bank accounts could help shed light on corruption in their own countries. The data team of ICIJ worked with participating journalists to train them on using the data relevant to their countries and tell the stories hidden in the data.

In contract, ICIJ’s Evicted and Abandoned and Fatal Extraction were very Western-centric, engaging mostly Westerners in the data analysis and mostly following chains of responsibility that relate to Western actors.

“The International Consorsium of Investigative Journalists’ Offshore Leaks, Swiss Leaks and Luxembourg Leaks engaged journalists from over 100 countries to investigate how a database of secret bank accounts could help shed light on corruption in their own countries.”

What could be done to take cross-border data journalism to the next level globally?

I think the first thing we need to do is agree on what exactly the goal of cross-border reporting is. Discussions of terms like solution journalism, explanatory reporting and impact journalism are especially salient in contexts where sometimes the goal of cross-border reporting seems to be merely elaborate and exotic entertainment and others where it is aggressively pursuing accountability to fix problems for citizens.

If we agree that our objective should be to make people’s lives better, then we need to focus on growing an array of technical and analytical skills in developing countries to prepare these journalists to partner on major projects, just as the OCCRP has been doing for years. Our standards should be high but we also need to invest in the growing global open data journalism community and recognize that this could be a win-win situation.

Western media have richer, more nuanced understanding of development challenges and local journalists have an international stage to denounce and help solve the challenges facing their countries through stories they often would never risk publishing on their own in-country without the added support of an international network.


Justin Arenstein, Founder of Code for Africa, jury member for the DJA 2016

“There is growing transnational collaboration on data-driven journalism projects. Much of the collaboration is still seed funded by initiatives like EJC’s”
Photograph by the TANZICT Project

GEN: What do you think of the way data journalism is done in developing countries compared to bigger newsrooms in Europe and the US?

Justin Arenstein: Bandwidth remains a major issue for audiences in the Global South, which means that fancy data visualisations or resource-intensive news apps aren’t appropriate. Many of the newsrooms that we work with across Africa therefore focus on creating data-driven journalism for chat apps or SMS-based audiences or for other low bandwidth platforms.

Examples of this range from the Dodgy Dr project that has just prompted Kenyan authorities to change regulations around doctor registration, to the Living Wage project that sparked South Africa’s largest public debate yet on wages for domestic workers (see video below). The core of both projects was a simple data-driven tool or calculator, that helped the audience locate themselves in the story. And, both stories were so successful they they’re now inspiring ‘clones’ in other countries.

Nosiphiwo Final Video for Living Wage Project, by Code for South Africa

What limitations and challenges do African journalists face today when tackling data journalism projects? What initiatives are in place to help solve these issues? What is still needed to make things better?

Data-driven journalism isn’t cheap. Like many other in-depth techniques, it takes more time and resources than straight reportage. African journalists therefore face many of the same resource constraints that their counterparts up North do. They also have way more scepticism from media managers than journalists in the North do, because managers assume that data-driven journalism only produces bandwidth-hungry multimedia products.

Code for Africa therefore spends a lot of time convening ‘c-level’ roundtable for CEOs, CTOs and other media executives to explore appropriate technology strategies underpinned by robust business models that don’t cannibalise existing revenue streams.

But, journalists also struggle to find African data that is granular enough to build meaningful projects. Most government or official data is very high-level. Code for Africa and its independent country-based affiliates, such as Code for South Africa, therefore invest considerable resources into ‘liberating’ data.

We also run the continent’s largest independent open data portal to help civil society organisations release their data, and offer journalists help from a network of data wranglers to improve media’s analysis of data.

How is the field of cross-border data journalism (with teams in Europe and the US working together with teams in developing countries on specific projects) doing today? How do you see it evolve in the future?

There is growing transnational collaboration on data-driven journalism projects. Much of the collaboration is still seed funded by initiatives like EJC’s journalism grants or Code for Africa’s Impact Africa Fund.

As with all collaborations, the major constraint is trust: can the partners trust each other to deliver bulletproof research and reporting, and can everyone be trusted to deliver their pieces of the project on deadline and at the agreed quality?

The seed-funded projects give people a chance to build this trust, so that they don’t hesitate to reach out to each other the next time they need feet on the ground in Africa, Latin America, or Asia.

We are now starting to see major transnational collaborations, without donor funding, including partnerships such as those between the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) and the African Network for Centers of Investigative Journalism (ANCIR) on data-driven investigations such as Evicted & Abandoned and Fatal Extractions where the African partners didn’t just do the field work: they also contributed substantively to the data analysis and technology parts of the projects.

This growing technical ability of media in the South is helping change the partnership dynamics. The Africans always used to be junior partners, doing on-the-ground legwork and little else. Growing technical expertise means they can now be equal partners.

What is more impressive is when media organisations in the North forge partnerships with those in the South to build major digital infrastructure. We are seeing organisations like Investigative Reporters & Editors work with Code for Africa and others to rebuild major tools such as DocumentCloud, as well as European organisations like SourceFabric work with partners across the world to build solutions to everything from photo verification, to citizen reporting tools.

How important do you think international collaborations can be in the future of data journalism worldwide? What could be improved in the way things are done today?

It is simply too expensive, in the current media economy, for most newsrooms to parachute reporters into the Global South for routine stories. Transnational collaborations that leverage local media partners therefore make economic sense.

Our sense is that collaborative data journalism is therefore crucial. One way to build the trust and networks required for ongoing collaboration is for data-driven newsrooms to encourage their data journalists and other digital staff to join communities such as Hacks/Hackers Africa which already has 30,000+ African data geeks and civic technologies. There are equivalents to this across Latin America, India, Pakistan, etc.

Data-driven newsrooms should also think about how they can leverage global technology networks, such as the Code for All movement. In Africa, the media have managed to make data journalism a core focus of the continental ‘Code’ movement including sponsorship for Africa’s first data journalism academy which trains mid-career journalists and is already producing published data journalism projects just two months after it launched.

As the 10 April 2016 deadline approaches, why do you think it is important for data journalists from around the world to apply to the Data Journalism Awards?

The Data Journalism Awards aren’t about money. They’re about being able to benchmark your work against international peers, to win peer affirmation that can be used to change the minds of media managers and newsrooms leadership.

The La Nación, for example, was able to get significantly more internal support for its work after it beat global heavyweights like The New York Times and UK’s The Guardian.

What recent examples have impressed you the most and why? What examples of data journalism from developing countries has impressed you the most in the past year or so and why?

I’ve been wowed by a lot of the work led by Jacopo Ottaviani on behalf of the EJC’s Journalism Grants initiative, not just because the digital storytelling has been compelling but also because Jacopo is deliberately tackling the cost-of-production issue that often cripples data-driven projects. He has repeatedly succeeded at building transnational media consortia around his projects, involving major global players such as Al Jazeera English and Le Monde, etc, who all publish versions of his stories simultaneously. Not only does this create massive audiences for his work, but it also allows for participating media to share the cost of producing the stories.

La Nación in Argentina have also been an inspiration, with a string of projects over the years proving that data-driven reportage doesn’t have to be expensive and doesn’t need massive teams. Their work has also pioneered ways for small newsrooms to harness crowdsourcing to analyse massive data or document collections in a systematic way, and has proven that clever use of access to info laws and ‘open intelligence’ information can result in data-driven stories that change the way a society views an issue … and ultimately sparks changes in the law.

Other places that are developing strong approaches to data-driven journalism include the Hindustan Times in India, thanks to digital strategist Nasr ul Hadi and Pakistan where strategist Shaheryar Popalzai is working through local Hacks/Hackers chapters to kickstart data teams in a string of newsrooms.


The Data Journalism Unconference will take place at Thomson Reuters headquarters in New York City on 10 May 2016, and is supported by Google and Thomson Reuters.


Story by Marianne Bouchart, originally published here.