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The Challenges Facing Data Journalism in West Africa

The launch of news website FiveThirtyEight, which aims to popularise the concept of data journalism, has been an important source of interest and excitement in the world of American media. Creator Nate Silver is an American statistician who rose to fame during the 2008 elections thanks to his accurate predictions of the presidential vote in 49 out of 50 states and the Senate vote in 35 of the races. 

Explaining that data journalism is much more than election predictions, Silver wrote on the website:

It usually involved more preliminary steps in the data journalism process: collecting data, organizing data, exploring data for meaningful relationships, and so forth. Data journalists have the potential to add value in each of these ways, just as other types of journalists can add value by gathering evidence and writing stories.

In Europe, many initiatives of this type have already been established, such as OWNI in France and The Guardian's Data Blog in the United Kingdom.

Data journalism is no longer the novelty it was a few years ago for the majority of media around the world.  

Including in emerging countries, the value of data journalism is widely recognised. However, a model of practice is yet to be established. Bertrand Pecquerie, CEO of the Global Editors Network, thinks that legal barriers are still playing an important role in the access to open data in most emerging countries:

Clearly, data journalism is at an early stage in emerging countries. The real barrier is access to open data, and the laws are still friendlier in, [for example], Sweden and Norway than in Nigeria or Pakistan.”

On the African continent, data journalism is experiencing a surge, but faces issues such as access to and reliability of existing data. Cheikh Fall, the founder of Sunu2012 [fr] in Senegal, and Nicolas Kayser-Bril, the co-creator of Journalism++ and leader of a data journalism training workshop in Dakar, have discussed the needs regarding reliable data there [fr]:

L’accès aux données est largement insuffisant. Nous avons 100 personnes qui relaient l’information sur le terrain et une communauté de quelques 1 000 personnes qui suivent le site. Pour nous, l’enjeu principal est de démocratiser le mode de traitement de l’information et que celui qui habite à 500 kilomètres de Dakar puisse avoir accès à l’information [..] Ils vont chercher les données à la base et ne se contentent pas de vérifier un chiffre sorti de la bouche d’un politique. L’intérêt du fact-checking est de pouvoir vérifier et contester les données officielles. On sait qu ’il y a un problème de données, donc l’enjeu est d’en chercher de nouvelles. »

There's a real lack of access to data. We have 100 people who relay information in the field and a community of a few thousand people who follow the website. For us, it's a question of improving access to data so that someone who lives 500 kilometres from Dakar can have access to information [...] They should be able to search for fundamental data and not have to settle for verifying statistics coming from the mouth of a politician. Fact-checking is concerned with verifying and contesting official data. We know that there's a data problem, so it's a question of finding new data.

Infographie sur la taille du continent africain - domaine public

Infographics about the size of the African continent – public

Nicolas Kayser-Bril discusses his vision for data journalism in the following French-language video. He explains that the goal of the data journalism projects in Africa is to develop innovative platforms that fills a concrete need for development:

Internet Sans Frontières (Internet Without Borders) was also involved in organising the same training workshop in Dakar with workshop co-creator Kayser-Bril. The group leaders, Julie Owono and Archippe Yepmou, talk about the workshop in the following video, explaining that it is more of an exchange of know-how rather than a top-down training session:

In Cameroon, Dorothée Danedjo Fouba noted that the country is a reference model for Africa in terms of online journalism, but she highlighted that it still lacks regulation [fr]:

Au Cameroun, la classification des journaux en ligne devient plus complexe du fait d’une absence de nomenclature dans le domaine du webjournalisme. Des propositions de nomenclature non encore validées par le législateur présente la presse en ligne sous le nom presse cybernétique constituée de « cyberjournal » ou « journal multimédia ».

In Cameroon, classifying different online news platforms is becoming more and more complex because of the absence of nomenclature in the field of online journalism. Classification proposals which have yet to be approved by legislators mean that the online press continues to be called ‘cyber journalism’ or ‘multimedia journalism'. 

But important initiatives are currently being set up in Cameroon. Gaétan IZANE, an engineer based in Douala highlighted a new project on Twitter :

Mini data journalism during the last Senate elections in Cameroon.

The presentation shown above  was presented at a workshop on media journalism [fr] supported  by the Goethe Institute in Cameroon.  The graph highlighted the projection of the senatorial elections by region and by  political party.

Another initiative, Feowl, has provided existing data to highlight the problems of power cuts in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon. Infographics were created using the collected data to heighten awareness of the issue:

Délestage à Douala, Cameroun via Bantu Politics

Power cuts in Douala, Cameroon via Bantu Politics

The Feowl project wasn't able to continue due to lack of funds, underlining yet again the difficulties involved in establishing data journalism projects in West Africa.

In Ivory Coast, blogger Yoroba believed that this field will be the future of journalism:

« Est-ce un métier pour l’avenir ?» me demandait un journaliste au sortir d’un atelier que je donnais sur le même thème. « Non, lui ai-je répondu, c’est un métier pour aujourd’hui ». [...] Le web journaliste doit tenir compte de l’environnement web dans lequel évolue désormais la profession. Un environnement de pluralité de sources. Le journaliste se retrouve parfois avec des versions différentes sur un sujet. Des informations complémentaires ou même contradictoires. Aux journalistes de faire le tri, de recouper et de vérifier ses sources.»

“Will it be a profession in the future?” a journalist asked me when leaving a workshop where I had spoken on the topic. “No,” I answered, “it's a profession today.” [...] Online journalists should be aware of the online environment in which this profession is currently evolving. An environment of multiple sources. From time to time, journalists find different versions on the same subject, both complimentary and contradictory. This new breed of journalists must recycle, cross-check and verify their sources.”

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