Eva Constantaras is a data journalist specialized in building data journalism teams in developing countries. These teams that have reported from across Latin America, Asia and East Africa on topics ranging from displacement and kidnapping by organized crime networks to extractive industries and public health. As a Google Data Journalism Scholar and a Fulbright Fellow, she developed her first of many courses for investigative and data journalism in high-risk environments.
Tell me a little bit about what you do.
I’m a data journalist — most of my work is forming and editing data journalism teams in developing countries. That begins with doing an assessment of the open data environment through building data journalism training programs, and then identifying media houses to set up permanent data journalism units and getting them off the ground.
In this work, can you tell me about a specific time where you’ve really felt a sense of success?
My most successful program has been in Kenya, where we’ve seen data journalism projects by local media result in policy change. We’ve had journalists start to investigate budget data and realize, for example, that cash funds for poor Kenyans were not being allocated according to the original formula, which was based on “If your county is poor, you get more money.”
That allocation formula was changed without anyone noticing. When our journalist noticed it by looking at the budgetary data, he published the story about who’s harmed by the change in funding allocations, the impacts on ordinary citizens, and which parliamentarians were pushing this change in policy.
After the story came out there was a lot of public reaction and government scrutiny. The donors and the government sat down and reversed the policy. We have a couple of cases in Kenya where data-driven stories actually resulted in evidence based policy decision making, and real change.
That’s a big win. Now how about an example of a challenge.
Kenya’s an ideal environment to work in. They have a growing open data movement, the government is somewhat open to more evidence based policy, and it has a very thriving media environment. But, we also work in places like Afghanistan where it’s a very high risk media environment with low levels of media and data literacy.
The media environments there are also really new, so there’s not a lot of professionalism, and the data’s difficult to access. The metrics for success in an environment like that are very different. We use data and we use technology — but mostly in the interest of training the basics of public interest journalism.
We use data, but our goals are much more modest, and it’s a much more long-term plan. We know we’re not going to see a lot of results in a year, or two — it’s a long range approach to getting better information to citizens. We are slowly building digital and data capacity with hopes that in a couple years there will be increased professionalism in the media — and that, in turn, will prepare them for a digital transition.
You jumped to my next question naturally, which was how do you approach solving this challenge, or at least mitigating or dealing with it? I’m hearing you say that you take a different approach — you have different expectations and you’re taking a more long-term view. Is there anything else you want to add to that?
Increasingly, we’re doing more assessments on the ground of the overall open data digital environment. We want to figure out what civil society organizations and what tech communities are out there. We want to know are civic hackers interested in working on data journalism projects? How can we get a sense of the landscape to make sure we’re not overlooking anyone, and we’re not creating even more work for ourselves in what might already be a weak media environment, a weak governance environment? We want to make sure that we get the open data community to the table and involved in the project.
We know it’s going to be a slow process but at least we’re working with all the resources that are available. This year, the Pajhwok Afghan News made its first submissions to the Global Data Journalism Awards with a project to map violence in the country and , which the team was very proud of.
Turning to the broadest issue in Mozilla universe, which is free and open Internet. What, for you — and I really want to emphasize the “for you” piece here — is the open Internet?
For me, the open Internet is an awareness about just how much you can find on the Internet. My favorite complaint when I’m teaching data literacy is, “Well, our country doesn’t have any data.” Actually it does — even the most closed and repressive countries we work in have a lot of data. They just don’t realize how much is out there on the Internet.
There are basic digital literacy skills that can open up their eyes to all the material and information that’s out there. As that awareness increases, so does media literacy, information literacy, data literacy, and the ability to understand and be able to evaluate these giant streams of information. In what a couple years ago was a closed country, like Myanmar, they go from zero to everything — we are helping them navigate the open Internet space.
We also want them to understand what they’re defending. If the government blocks Twitter or closes certain opposition websites — we help them realize what that information ecosystem look like and why a free information or ecosystem is valuable and why it’s important to defend something like the open Internet.
It’s interesting because you’re not just talking about access, you’re talking about once you have access. How do you even know what’s there that you didn’t think was there?
Thinking about yourself personally, how have you…the key way you think you benefited from openness?
I just get to work with so many more communities than I’d be able to, otherwise. This week I’m in Pakistan, next week El Salvador and next month Albania and Sudan. I can work a couple of weeks accessing data about a country online, put together exercises as activities that lead to published stories. These stories really help local journalists get to the root issues of the major challenges in their country. A few years ago I wouldn’t be able to do that.
Before, we’d have to go to the library and try to figure out what we could about a country. The open internet accelerates information exchange in what were previously closed environments.
Getting more specific about Mozilla. How did you get involved with Mozilla and what has that been like for you?
I got involved with Mozilla because I stumbled across a tweet by Dan Sinker of OpenNews — they were having an OpenNews call about data journalism. I was living in Nairobi at the time and tried to keep track of US data journalism events. I joined the call where he discussed recruiting the next classes of OpenNews fellows and who the next host organizations should be.
I looked up the previous host organizations had been, and saw the New York Times, ProPublica, and other data journalism heavyweights. I wondered if we could have one in Kenya — I had moved there to help form the Internews Kenya Data Dredger platform, a data desk for local journalists.
I tweeted Dan Sinker and said, “Hey, what are the requirements for having an OpenNews fellow, because we would love to have one in our data desk in Kenya?” He answered and said, “Yeah, let’s have a call about it.” Sure enough, we were signed up to host the first OpenNews fellow in Africa.
Eva: From that, they’ve just been extremely supportive and inclusive of all the data journalism and open data projects that we’ve been doing in developing countries.
Were you already connected with Dan?
No, I found him on Twitter.
You saw the tweet because you were following that topic?
Yeah, I was following the data journalism hashtag. I hadn’t even heard about OpenNews.
You hadn’t heard of his network?
No, I didn’t know.
Ok, that’s a helpful clarification. Can you tell if in any way this involvement with Mozilla has had an impact on either your life or your work?
It’s one of the few organizations that’s really interested in getting beyond the hype of data journalism — in search of actual results while being inclusive. I usually get invited to conferences to represent the rest of the world — the Global South. “Can you come and talk about the Global South?” Whereas, at MozFest, they say “Can you be a space wrangler and bring in all those cool people who are doing those cool projects you always talk about?”
A lot of people who present at MozFest on the journalism floor, who we bring in, they’ve never been to a conference in the West before. It’s a fantastic opportunity for them to meet other data journalists. We’ve had cases where they’ve met technologists who now pitch in on their projects. It’s a great way to integrate data journalism that’s happening in the Global South with what’s happening in the West, and get them involved in that community.
That’s really significant, coming from the development space of the South.
Right, and they always invite the same people who have their polished speech, and it all sounds like it was “Oh, it all went great, and look at our fantastic app we built,” whereas these guys talk about the real challenges they face and the real limitations — things that matter, things an app can’t fix.
The digital product doesn’t matter, it’s what impact have they had on their community. A reality about “It’s not about a success story,” it’s about linking people into the data journalism community — to get them exposed to more ideas and also to get them help on some of the initiatives that they’re working on.
And the learning goes both ways. Immediately after Brexit and right before the US elections, we had a panel on global fact-checking initiatives, which turned out to be a prescient sharing of ideas and strategies by people who have spent years combating political propaganda and fake news with data-driven analysis.
Thinking about your involvement with Mozilla, can you tell about a time where it didn’t meet your expectations, or any other feedback you have?
Sure. I’ve talked about this before — the first time we tried to bring a significant group from the Global South, we encountered a sort of cliqueness to MozFest, so the internationals stuck together.
How do you cross-pollinate people who already have their group? One way we tried to address this — and that helped — is the help desk model. If you have any questions about Data Visualization tools, this person’s going to here for an hour.
It’s lowering the barrier for access so you can talk to people. They no longer have to wait for their sessions and go in front of a crowded room to ask a speaker, “Hi, can I talk to you about my idea?” — the environment is much less intimidating.
Through this project we’re collecting a whole bunch of stories, and at some point we’ll tag them all and categorize them. In what ways, if at all, might this repository be helpful to you?
Any way I can get to know what projects people are working on and what they consider successes, especially the journalism space, is sueful to my work. They’re always willing to pitch in whenever I need help — I can call an OpenNews fellow and get help from anything from scraping the Pakistan procurement database to enabling right to left scripting on Tabula to scrape PDFs in Arabic or Dari.
It’s good to know what are they working on internally, what projects is Mozilla supporting, and how can we access innovation in the journalism space. It’s great to be aware of what goes on after Mozilla Fest, and what are people are working on.
And where are the hooks.
Exactly. Yeah, — how can we take advantage of that, instead of just once a year trying to catch up with everything that’s going on.
That’s super comforting. Thank you. Is there anything more you want to tell me, or ask me?
No. Like I said, this is one of the more inclusive events that I’ve seen. There doesn’t seem be that motivation of, “We want someone to talk about how data journalism is saving the world.” You know what I mean? It’s not about success stories, they don’t want the most refined speaker ever. They’re just really supportive of, “We want to hear from the people who care and what they’re doing, what they’re working on, and how they’re doing it.” Out of any conference, Mozfest is probably the one to bring them to — because of that attitude.
Yeah, no problem.