Does data always make things better?
On my first trip to Kabul in April 2014, I flew over with a bunch of very purposeful people: election observers brandishing GPS-enabled monitoring devices, diplomats prepared for behind-the-scenes negotiations, CNN correspondents adjusting make-up and empathetic expressions and the remaining cast of characters expected to be on site for Afghanistan’s first democratic transition of power. And then there was me, with a data analysis primer, Google charts and some data.
Waiting for me in a training room were 10 journalists who had been pulled from their live election coverage to attend a week-long data journalism course. The principle is simple: citizens in a functioning democracy engage actively with their government through elections. Data is key to understanding society’s biggest challenges, figuring out if the government’s actions line up with citizens’ priorities, and voting to hold government accountable. But first, someone has to make some sense of the data in a way that also made sense to people. Like in most countries across the world, election coverage in Afghanistan is more about the campaign trail and election predictions than in-depth policy analysis, especially in the days and weeks before voters head to the polls.
Having worked in a dozen countries on data journalism projects, I have thought about the question of when is the “right time” to introduce data journalism into a country. Mainstreaming data journalism is a fairly new concept across the board and has met with mixed success. Ideally, the media industry is mature and in the process of shifting production to its online platform; journalists are eager to acquire multimedia storytelling skills to remain relevant and competitive and increasingly national and local data are available online. Afghanistan is not a great candidate. Due to the war, Afghan media is still in its infancy. Internet penetration is low, so investing in an online presence is understandably not a priority for many media. Language barriers make opening a free account for data visualization software a challenge. Logistics are expensive because of security, and even with the best-laid plans, things never go quite as scheduled.
On a more philosophical level, in a country so plagued by corruption, I wondered not if the corruption was worth measuring, but whether anyone would care when we did. In At Afghan Border, Graft is Part of the Bargain, Declan Walsh explains the widespread Afghan belief that, “corruption can no longer be described as a cancer of the system: it is the system.” In other countries, trainees had documented and measured corruption, only to see the public shrug off the story, already desensitized.
There had been numerous stories analyzing the billions of dollars in development aid and military aid that have been misspent in Afghanistan, but largely they came out in Western media. If Afghan consumers knew the scope of the problem would they care? Would they take ownership? Would they be inspired to look for a solution?
In my first class on the first day, there was a guy in a newsboy cap, vest, jacket and beard (and this is the exact outfit he has worn every day I have seen him). Rohullah Armaan spoke only a few words of English and didn’t participate much in discussions. Two days into our workshop, a Taliban attack targeting media blew out the windows of our training facility. Luckily we weren’t there because the streets had been blocked off to due politicians moving around so the day had been canceled. A 40-hour workshop, already an unrealistically small amount of time to get started in data journalism, shrank to 32 hours. It didn’t matter; Rohullah figured it out anyway. A few weeks after our workshop, he wrote this story, one of the first data-driven investigations by Afghans for Afghans.
Since that first workshop, Rohullah and I have continued to work together on data stories. The way he and I collaborate on stories is unique, to say the least. We send e-mails back and forth, deciphering approximations of each other’s messages through Google Translate. In this way we try to nail down very specific equations and analysis. Excel spreadsheets have English running down the left side, Dari down the right. We highlight in bright colors to make sure the other sees the changes. Sometime large chunks of analysis, insight and simple logistics are lost in rather atrocious translation. But the story gets out.
I don’t know if the spring of 2014 was the right time to introduce data journalism into Afghanistan. It would have been impossible to predict in my first class on the first day, that Rohullah would be tracking arms prices a week later. He was a skilled journalist who took time away from the frenzy of the election to dig deep into data. He already had the investigative skills; he just needed the data tools.
No laws or policies have changed as a result of his first story. Neither foreign nor the Afghan government has instituted a new policy to stem illegal arms trafficking though news of the US losing track of large numbers of weapons has crossed into the international news stream. While the election observers, correspondents, diplomats and I all went home after the elections, an Afghan journalist reporting in Dari from Kabul got to work. He used data to explain to Afghan citizens the scope of the arms trafficking problem, the causes and the impact. It is now up to the citizens to hold their government accountable.
Internews has been working in Afghanistan for over a decade to strengthen the media and civil society to promote the democratic process and the free exchange of information. Eva Constantaras is Internews’ Data Journalism Advisor.
This story originally ran in Medium.