Data journalism unearths stories in Zambia

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As part of Kiplinger’s ongoing mission to train professional journalists worldwide, I spent the first week of May in Zambia, where, at the request of the U.S. Department of State and the embassy in Lusaka, I taught 22 journalists the fundamentals of data journalism.

It was a challenge given their understanding of data use in reporting and their abilities to get information from the government. In the end, we overcame both and the hopeful results will be more informative, fact-based journalism to the public.

Challenge one will be getting information from a government that controls a large share of the publications, TV and radio stations. Those employees, underpaid and overworked, aren’t likely to flex their press muscles to demand access to data. Those who work for private media outlets and are often seen as government oppositions, are spoon-fed selected information and denied access to raw data. But, they are thirsty and driven. And, tired of being denied.

Zambian journalists spent four days at the U.S. Embassy learning data journalism.

The second challenge is technological. In a nation where internet services are spotty and WiFi is a hit-and-miss proposition, spending a lot of time sifting through data or even searching for it can be difficult. They can almost forget, at this point, building their own data sets. They’re not there yet.

So, the week focused on the ins and outs of starting data projects, no matter the size, the search for data and how to manage it. We covered finding, uploading, sorting and interpreting data. I used Xcel and Google Sheets, walking them through the simplest ways to control data. We even delved into data-visualization-made-easy apps.

Thank goodness for the data site that is the World Bank.

As we methodically data mined  World Bank collections we unearthed an amazing amount of information they’d never seen. In some cases, the data refuted the government party line on poverty, health care, environmental protection and literacy. Shock.

Kabwe, a town about 90 minutes by car from the capital, is renowned for being one of the most polluted spots in the world. For years, a lead mine provided the mineral for the world at the health and environmental expense of the people and their land. Today, scavengers still mine the remnants by hand. Health issues are aplenty. The environment has been laid to waste. Data from the government is almost impossible to get. The World Bank, which has poured millions (one single donation topped at $60 million USD) into remediation of the town, has a treasure trove of data and reports online.

As we peeled back the layers it was heartening to see that most of the journalists had never seen that organization’s data and reports. They rapidly took notes and openly expressed their frustrations about not knowing this important data sitting in cyberspace for years. This was a win for journalism.

You could see the lights coming on as each day we discovered more data and they learned more skills. Story ideas popped into their heads. The desire to refresh old stories was embraced. Kawbe is still a very active story 12 years after the mine closed. I think it will get renewed attention in the coming months. The same became true when we reviewed fertility, poverty, environmental, agricultural and literacy data sets. They have plenty of stories to take to the people.

And, that was really the mission – first to convince them they were leaving a lot of stories behind by not invoking data, and second, give them the abilities to go after the data and manage it for the betterment of their reporting.

The end game is to empower the press to work more diligently and productively to become a true Fourth Estate pillar that shores up democracy in that nation. Hats off to the Zambian journalists who will take on that responsibility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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