Data Journalism: The New Normal in Kenya

In January 2003, Kenya’s Free Primary Education (FPE) programme made primary education free, hoping to put an end to the cycle of children dropping out of school early. But thirteen years later, a review of educational data by Nation Newsplex and the Institute of Economic Affairs showed that only two out of five students reach Form Four in Kenya, the final year of high school.

Infographic showing how many children drop out of school in Kenya
Data visualization in Nation Newsplex, March 2016

While this is an improvement on previous statistics, thousands of Kenyan children are still leaving school early, with long-term consequences. They miss out on training and educational opportunities that require at least a secondary school certificate, they are likely to earn less in their lifetime, and suffer more ill health than their more qualified peers.

Journalist Dorothy Otieno heads up the team at Nation Newsplex which published analysis of this data, exposing the state of education in Kenya. “When the Kenyan Minister for Education released the annual national secondary school exam results at a press conference, he denounced our story as inaccurate. However, we showed him how deeper analysis of the data paints a less rosy picture. He changed his mind,” says Dorothy.

“Because data journalism is based on hard facts, the Minister for Education could not argue with what we presented in our story,” she chuckles.

To meet the force of nature that is Dorothy is to come face to face with someone who makes a success of anything she tackles … and one thing she tackles especially well is data journalism.

It’s hard to keep up with Dorothy — as we all discovered when we launched data journalism training at Internews in Kenya in 2011. Dorothy soon took the lead in our ambitious training program at a heady time when Kenya’s open data culture emerged. Jump a few years ahead, and this former data journalism trainer is once again a force to be reckoned with as Data Editor at the Nation Media Group, the largest media concern in East Africa.

A woman works at a computer
Dorothy Otieno, Data Editor, Nation Newsplex Credit: Dolphine Emali

Exposing Kenyan road accidents

Another example of the Newsplex team’s recent work was a series of articles and online resources focusing on the number of road accidents in Kenya. The country has one of the highest incidents of road deaths in the world per capita but before Newsplex started its journalistic investigation, the data outlined in incident reports was very limited. “We decided to look deeper into the data because ultimately, it’s a huge public health issue,” says Dorothy.

The result was a story that explored the dangers of travelling on Kenyan roads. It showed a steady increase in motorcyclist deaths on Kenyan roads — an insight that a surface level glance at the data could not have revealed.

Infographic showing how many die from motorcycle accidents.
Newsplex infographic, December 2015

Crucially, this data journalism work is making a difference to how data is recorded and published in Kenya, as Dorothy explained, “Because of our work, the National Transport and Safety Authority decided to change the way it compiles its data for the media and it now provides a lot more information.”

“Every time I see this data released I feel very pleased because I know our journalism made a difference.”

Data journalism: A paradigm shift in Kenya

Data-driven stories such as those produced by Dorothy and her small team at Nation Newsplex have the power to hold governments to account and change policy.

Only five years ago data was all but absent from news reporting in the country. Dorothy explains: “Journalists would report government press releases and press conferences almost word for word and would seek out quotes from well-known officials. News reports consisted of words and quotes — graphs and data tables were all but absent and there was not any investigative reporting which delved deeper into facts and figures.”

Churchill Otieno (no relation to Dorothy), managing editor at The Daily Nation, has driven the publication’s shift to data-driven reporting. “We are starting to realise that a certain group of people within our core audience now expects regular publication of these data-driven stories and if they don’t get them often enough, they demand them. This shows that our investment in data journalism has paid off — our competitors are showing signs that they want to do the same.”

Entering a new era

It was a long hard road to get to where the country is now, says Dorothy.

“Many different pieces of a very complex puzzle needed to slot into place for data journalism to flourish in Kenya. It could not happen overnight.”

Reaching this point required the involvement of data journalism trainers such as Dorothy, buy-in from newsrooms and the development of clean, ready-to-use data sources.

With her background in health journalism, Dorothy took to the concept of data journalism very quickly, saying, “I remember the first time we did data training at Internews and I fell in love with it. In health and science journalism you have to confront data and in this session I realised I was learning things that would make my life as a journalist so much easier. It really spoke to me.”

Creating access to open data

Journalists working in Western newsrooms are used to being able to get their information and data from think tanks and government websites; but only the very connected could pry data and new findings from government departments. The journalists taking part in the Internews fellowship actually created a demand for access to data by approaching government ministers and departments and requesting access to data sets for the very first time.

“Initially when we began requesting access to government data there was a lot of resistance. But since we got a more democratic government in power, people became much more open to sharing information,” says Dorothy.

Access to the internet has played a huge role in creating an open data culture. A few years ago, the world of communications just opened up in Kenya, and Kenya was ready to go data, says Dorothy.

At Internews, our data journalism training grew wings. In 2012, we created Data Dredger — an online resource for data analysis, and a space where partner journalists could hone the craft of data mining, where the best data stories are displayed and from which data visualizations could be downloaded for use in the Kenyan media. The year Data Dredger was created, it was the only African finalist in the prestigious Global Editors’ Network Data Journalism Awards. Dorothy believes the Data Dredger site itself drove demand for data stories with a fresh new look and feel.

Infographic showing how many public health facilities provide sanitation
From the Internews Data Dredger

With Kenya now reflecting the global trend towards data driven journalism, we boosted our team with international expertise in the form of Internews Global Data Journalism Adviser, Eva Constantaras. In Kenya, we launched data journalism fellowships and the fellows’ stories began to win awards, and the editors liked that.

Getting buy-in from newsrooms

A data journalism culture could not have taken root and flourished without the support of editors, who needed to recognize the power of data analysis to bring new insights and fresh stories, which is exactly what happened at The Daily Nation.

Dorothy explains: “Churchill Otieno had the vision to realize that data journalism could add real value to the publication’s news reporting.” At the end of 2014, when Dorothy was still a data journalism trainer at Internews, the Daily Nation hosted an Internews project charting 30 years of HIV in Kenya.

Screenshot from 30 Years of HIV website
Internews Kenya’s interactive graphic on 30 years of HIV coverage.

Not long after, Churchill set up a dedicated data journalism news desk, Nation Newsplex, and appointed Dorothy to drive it with her brand of in-depth data-driven stories — the kind getting reactions from readers and policymakers.

Churchill says he decided to set up a data driven news desk, because it offered a new way of telling stories. “It appeals to an audience looking for story depth and insights beyond the headlines, which is nearly everyone. We believe that every story can be a data story; whether it’s health, sport, business or politics.”

Changing the culture of journalism

The team has ambitious plans for the future. The Nation Media Group also includes the Saturday and Sunday Nation, The East African, the TV station NTV and a radio station, and there are plans to implement data journalism practices in those outlets too. “We are planning to go big,” says Dorothy.

“Now that access to data has been accepted as a vital component of producing investigative credible news, we are seeing a meaningful change. It has changed the culture of Kenyan newsrooms so that journalists dig deep, carry out investigative work and take the time to tell the story thoroughly.”

Right now the Newsplex team is still tiny, compared to the squads of journalists, data miners, analysts, coders and visualizers that make data journalism happen at celebrated publications like The Guardian and The New York Times. But they produce a steady flow of quality stories that hold those in power to account or show fresh insights. I shall be looking out for the Newsplex team’s names in upcoming data journalism awards.

Ida Jooste is Global Health Advisor at Internews.

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)

Banner photo by Commonwealth Secretariat/Flickr/CC