Crowdsourcing Ushers in a New Era of African Journalism

Kat Austen for the Big Picture Digital Journalism project.

Photo by Reuters

There are few things less appealing than reams of paperwork and massive digital files. Sometimes, though, hidden within the piles of data, there is a story that needs to be told. Take the UK parliamentary expenses scandal for example. When the story broke in 2009, the Telegraph newspaper exposed politicians who stretched to - and sometimes beyond - the limit what were acceptable expenses claims. Some MPs resigned, some were even imprisoned, amid public disapprobation.

But more than disgracing a few people in power, what passed brought to the attention of the world the power of vast swathes of information. Since then, the open data movement has swept across the world, and with it data journalism. This year saw the inaugural Data Journalism Awards, celebrating achievements in the field worldwide.

Transparency, then, is the watchword of the day, and the successes of data journalism have added weight to public calls for governments to release data. In the UK, the Office of National Statistics released their first round in 2007 and last year Estonia followed suit, even allowing citizens to access all their own data in government databases by use of their Estonian identity card. Close on their heels was the Kenya Open Data Initiative which led the way in Africa, with South Africa and Tanzania also committing to release data. There is a drive to spread open data across the continent - facilitated by international programmes like the World Bank and Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) funded by the UK’s Department of International development. Currently, the Liberian and Ghanaian governments, along with the Ugandan government, have also shown willingness to publish government data in response to public interest.

Combining hoards of interested citizens with this open data means you have a powerful fact checking tool at your fingertips. When the MP expenses paperwork was released, the Guardian newspaper created a digital platform so that anyone could get involved in analysing the hundreds of thousands of documents available.

It is early days for similar stories to emerge from Kenyan open data, but it is only a matter of time before tools are developed to parse the information that has been released. If the stories are there, someone will find them.

The crowd can be harnessed to fact-check as well as to trawl through data. Award-winning projects like Cuidadano Inteligente in Argentina and Politifact  in the US harness the power of the crowd to fact-check politcal claims. And citizens have an important role to play in verifying media reports - whether it be through online comments, curated websites, or even calling and texting in to radio shows. That’s can be an incredibly important job, says Jean Luc Houédanou, a media consultant in the Ivory Coast. “Normal journalism in Ivory Coast falls short in reporting the news accurately, as the major newspapers, radios and publishers have some interest in common with some political parties and organisations. Therefore, their reports are biased and don't provide valuable and/or accurate content to the users.”

In Rwanda, where the state runs many media outlets, this feedback is of particular importance in getting the public voice heard. According to Reverand Jean-Pierre Uwimana, director of the Great Lakes Media Centre in the country, most callers to national news programs “are denouncing local authorities who are missing to their duties to serve well the citizens; misbehaviors of their neighbours according to cultural values,” and giving more positive stories of development in rural areas.

The release of government data is indesputably a great leap forward, but there are some data that aren’t stored in government repositories. What do you do when the government doesn’t collect data on a particular issue, or when you’re addressing corruption in the upper echelons? Uncovering corruption is one key area in which the voice of the crowd is most important. Launched at the end of last year, I Paid A Bribe builds on its successful Indian incarnation to collect data on bribery in Kenya. With already over 20,000 hits, the site statistics show that bribes to the police far outnumber those reported for any other circumstance. A broader initiative to uncover corruption has recently been launched in Uganda. Building on an already established online community of journalists and citizen informers, Ugandan media consultant Gerald Businge has set up “Bare the Fox”, a site that collates and verifies reports of corruption in the country.

Using similar tools, the Women of Uganda Network has launched a platform that focuses on reports both of corruption and poor service delivery by populations in the rural north of the country. Part of this project, as with Bare the Fox, is to increase media literacy in harder-to-reach areas. The problem of media literacy is not unique to Uganda, however, and has impact both on the collection and response to media. “The Kenyan urban community have become fairly media literate, but the greater majority - rural-based - are still media illiterate,” says Kenyan communications consultant Rosemary Nyaole. “Such population may easily believe such a fabricated story and take action that could be detrimental to the well-being of the society.”

These more rural communities also pose a technological challenge. Crowdsourcing technologies originally stem from the internet, but there are many areas in the host countries that are not yet wired to the web. To give a voice to these communities, many projects are utilising technology that is almost ubiquitous - mobile telephones.

Using platforms like Frontline SMS, which can post online SMS content from mobile phones, even those offline can come to the party. But using SMS technology to expose corruption is not without its risks. While efforts can be made to encrypt email and web-based reports, there is no way to safeguard citizens using SMS. While these projects are a good source of information and give a voice to the people, to turn the content into impactful news stories takes informed journalists. The Guardian’s Riot Rumours project, which won an award at this year’s Data Journalism Awards, charted the birth and death of false information on Twitter as the 2011 riots broke out in London, UK, showing how user-generated rumours are quickly quashed by the weight of user-generated truth online. By providing compelling visualisations, the Guardian’s journalistic and academic team gave an overview of the situation that had vastly more impact than the sum of its parts. Working with local partners, the international community is taking steps to bring to bear on the weath of citizen generated content data journalism knowledge from other parts of the globe. This year there are some key signs that the movement is gaining momentum. For one, the African Media Leadership Forum this November in Dakar, Senegal, focuses on crowdsourced journalism. And it is perhaps even more indicative of the rise of crowdsourced journalism in Africa that among the finalists of the African News Innovation Challenge, announced earlier this month are projects like AfricaNews which uses the crowd to verify media reports, and DataDesk, which provides tech support to budding digital journalists. Development work in the area is also flourishing. Internews Europe launched its Big Picture Digital Journalism project earlier this year with a Nairobi based training session for journalism trainers. Working with local partners like Nyaole, Houédanou and Uwimana, who are themselves advocates for new media practices, the project aims to develop and disseminate crowdsourced journalism skills and tools in key African countries. At the end of this month, the organisation will announce the winners of its Big Picture Journalism Award. Part of the BPDJ Project, three initiatives will be kickstarted with an award of 5,000 EUR each and support from the international NGO with training and consultation. Could crowdsourcing be the way forward for African journalism? Houédanou thinks so. “Crowdsourced journalism allows people to bring their voice in and report real information, new ideas, and topics that are relevant to the rest of the population. It allows the individual and the crowd to play a more important role in the production of news and stories.”