Hacking the News: How data can make stories better

These are a summarised set of notes from my session at the USIU School of Journalism. Catherine Gicheru is Code for Kenya’s country lead and an international award-winning Kenyan editor who helped establish the nation’s fastest growing newspaper, The Star, after having helped lead the Nation Group’s investigative unit. Gicheru is using her ICFJ Knight Fellowship at CfAfrica to expand Code for Kenya.

Recently, l had the privilege of speaking to a group of students at the USIU-A School of Journalism. The topic was on open data. The conversation was structured in such a way that Kenya Open Data’s Prestone Adie expounded on the efforts being made to get data from government agencies and departments. Code for Africa’s developer advocate Serah Rono discussed examples of how data forms the basis of some of the many tools and platforms that have been developed to enable citizens to not only access and interact with the data but also how they can act on this information.

I thought the best way to connect with the students was to present them with tangible and real life examples of how data can elevate a run of the mill story into something that connects, adds nuance and depth to such stories. This is not a criticism of how these stories/reports were done but serves to show how using data could have made these stories better.

Case Studies


  1. http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2000208236/al-shabaab-militants-attack-somali-army-base-killing-10-soldiers
  2. http://www.nation.co.ke/counties/Shabaab-militants-attack-Diff-Police-Station-in-Wajir/-/1107872/3287386/-/14lmf3w/-/index.html
  3. http://www.nation.co.ke/news/Al-Shabaab-attack-leaves-one-dead/-/1056/3288590/-/sc5aqlz/-/index.html

Chronology of terrorism attacks in Kenya since 1975


For example, in seeking answers to the questions below, the data you find can give additional information, added nuance and depth to the story.

  1. How many attacks have there been so far?
  2. Where have the attacks taken place?
  3. Are the attacks spread out or concentrated in certain areas?
  4. Who are the main casualties (policemen or civilians)?
  5. Are the terrorists shifting their attention from soft civilian sources eg churches, markets to police stations/army barracks? And what does this tell us about these attacks? Is the intent to harm or to get arms?
  6. What does this say about the ‘beefed up’ security that the Inspector General and Interior minister have been promising?
  7. What would it cost to employ and deploy at least 900 Kenya Police Reservists to patrol the border as requested by the county governments of of Mandera, Wajir and Garissa which,according to media reports, continue to be most affected?
  8. Who are the ‘terrorists’ and the how does this fit into the radicalisation, religious/ethnic profiling that has been going on?


Numerous stories about Cholera outbreaks in different counties. All reference the lack of toilets/access to clean water etc as major causes for the outbreak.

By looking at the available KDHS data on household survey- access to toilets/ clean water sources, additional information would have made these stories go beyond the incidental reporting to highlighting a problem that needs to be addressed urgently. This story, is an opportunity squandered to show how immense (or minor) the problem is. With only 97 per cent of the population using the bush as a toilet, it is no wonder that Cholera outbreaks in the county are common.

  1. Is there a correlation between those counties that have had periodic Cholera epidemics and the number of toilets that can be found in those counties/areas where the epidemics happen?
  2. Are there trends in the outbreaks?
  3. What interventions have been made?
  4. What impact, if any, have these interventions had?


Instead of giving the usual straight cut story about the accident incidents (news that may have been broken on social media if not radio), what should journalists do? Using available data as well as applying your journalistic skills of interviewing survivors, emergency service personnel; doctors, police etc, you can give readers/audiences additional nuance to the story by using data. For example,

  1. Is there a trend that can be gathered from the accident data?
  2. Is the site of the accident a known black spot? If so, what measures if any have been taken to reduce accidents?
  3. What other accidents have happened at that place? Which are the nearest medical facilities in the area and how equipped/staffed are they to deal with such incidents?

The following are informative datasets, collected by the National Transport and Safety Authority, and available on opendata.go.ke:

  1. Data on number of fatalities by time of day
  2. Statistics on number of vehicles registered every year
  3. Summary of occurences on vehicle accidents


  • Journalism is under siege. The time when legacy or traditional media — radio, TV or newspapers — were the only way to reach the public is on its way out. Technology has made it possible for audiences to, not only participate in the creation of content, but also to share this content. No longer is print the place to break the news as social media is now competing with radio and TV to break the news. For print journalists in particular, data gives them an opportunity to add depth to their analysis and to put into context what has happened. This kind of depth or perspective is sometimes not easily available. That means that journalists will have to change slightly how they do their report. The he-said she-said is not enough if journalists are to remain relevant.
  • With rapid advancement of technology there is greater digitization of data which can help drive or inform policies on water, agriculture, transportation, healthcare, financial inclusion, education, energy, security and even access to services through e-government; environment, air/water quality etc.
  • Data can be used to provide deeper insights into what is happening around us and how it might affect us. From telling people what has happened, data can help journalists provide the analysis and information that Wanjiku needs to be able to make sense of the important issues of the day. Data can help reveal “abstract threats” to society eg (did you know that most of those without jobs are young people between 18 and 35 years? Does education impact on your chances of getting a job? What is the role of gender in getting employment? )
  • Data can help/prove a complex story and combined with traditional reporting techniques, you can tell stories in a more compelling and innovative ways and give citizens actionable information. eg. How many tarmac roads’ are there in the country and how does this measure up with the investments made by both the national and county governments? Are taxpayers getting value for money in terms of these allocations? Data can help journalists speak truth to power and in the process challenge some of the ‘mis-statements’ that are bandied about as facts. How many teachers, doctors, nurses could have been trained with the money ‘misplaced’ in the NYS saga? And is it really true that 1.2 million women will benefit from the free maternity hospital as President Uhuru recently stated during the State of the Nation address?
  • Using data means there is less guesswork about what the facts are. You do not have to rely solely on quotes by individuals’ who have the tendency to issue denials if they come under pressure or opt to ‘mis-remember’. It also means you are in a strong position to force into silence those who would otherwise be quick to accuse you of ‘being paid’ to tarnish their names.
  • You can use data to hold politicians/officials to account eg. promises made at election time and whether they have been kept. For example, look at the political parties promises and use data to show whether they have kept their promises or not …it could also serve as a kind of scorecard for the politicians. Hansard reports are a useful resource to be able to check whether statements made by politicians are really true or factual; whether they are in sync with issues that concern the citizens and can even be used to analyse the quality or otherwise of their contribution to debates in Parliament or the Senate.
  • Data journalism is the future….traditional skills of gathering information — wearing out shoe leather in face to face meetings with sources, interviewing skills, etc are still an integral part of what we do as journalists. But being a good writer with good sources is no longer enough. A little multimedia skills here, a dose of computer assisted research there and the realisation and willingness to collaborate with others eg data scientists to help you analyse, graphic artists to visualise etc. They are all important if we are to meet the added responsibility and task of sifting through the ‘noise’ and providing citizens with information that matters to them and in a way that makes sense to them.
Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars…But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyze it and picking out what’s interesting.”
— Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web

The worlds of hackers and journalists are coming together, as reporting goes digital and Internet companies become media empires.

The worlds of hackers and journalists are coming together, as reporting goes digital and Internet companies become media empires.

Journalists call themselves “hacks,” someone who can churn out words in any situation. Hackers use the digital equivalent of duct tape to whip out code.

Hacker-journalists try and bridge the two worlds. Hacks/Hackers Africa aims to bring all these people together — those who are working to help people make sense of our world. It’s for hackers exploring technologies to filter and visualize information, and for journalists who use technology to find and tell stories. In the age of information overload and collapse of traditional business models for legacy media, their work has become even more crucial.

Code for Africa, the continent’s largest #OpenData and civic technology initiative, recognises this and is spearheading the establishment of a network of HacksHackers chapters across Africa to help bring together pioneers for collaborative projects and new ventures.

Follow Hacks/Hackers Africa on Twitter and Facebook and join the Hacks/Hackers community Nairobi community group today.