28 December 2012

Kenya: Journalists Can Save Kenya Open Data Initiative


The Daily Nation published an article on November 10 titled 'The Kenya Open Data Initiative has hit a dead end, says PS'.

This sounded like a death knell for a much vaunted project that had won the government praise the world over for adopting transparency by making public data available.

Information PS Bitange Ndemo lamented the unwillingness of state institutions to release data and revealed the entrenched culture of secrecy surrounding data.

The current state of the project is at variance with the fanfare that greeted the launch of the initiative by President Kibaki in July last year.

The open data portal was meant to inspire developers to build applications and guide public debate on development. My contention is that journalists have a greater role to play in ensuring that open data remains relevant.

They have to take on the onerous task of combing the data portal to tell stories from the datasets. The problem is that many journalists lack data harvesting skills and can't use data in storytelling.

These training needs should be addressed. With county governments coming up soon, it is going to be important for journalists to have skills in scraping data, and analysing and presenting it for public consumption and interpretation.

To build a data driven economy journalists need to be able to use current datasets in order to justify the release of more data by the conservative elements of government.

The Star was selected among other partners to participate in a pilot programme named Code4Kenya, whose aim was to attach fellows to newsrooms to help in using open data to build various applications.

Madi Jimba, an urban planning specialist, was attached to the Star and through his leadership, we have developed a health portal using available data.

The portal, available on http://health.the-star.co.ke, enables users to check whether their doctors are registered by the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacist and Dentists Union, the location of the health centres and which services they can get through their NHIF registration.

Our aim is to continue enriching the portal so that users can get complex data that will guide their decisions on health issues. The project has shown the usefulness of data journalism, and similar portals can be built for other areas of public interest.

Kenyan journalism has been heavily focussed on reporting stories while neglecting analysis and comment. In order to renew interest in the open data initiative, journalists need to use the available datasets to tell stories and create public awareness.

At the moment the government is under no pressure to release data because what they have released so far has not been used effectively. Likewise, other organisations such as the media and universities are comfortable hoarding their data.

The Code4Kenya team has shown that data can be interpreted and presented in a user-friendly, meaningful way. Recently, when the IEBC released a voluminous, wordy PDF document detailing the voting stations in the country, developers from Code4Kenya scraped the data and built a website (www.gottovote.co.ke) that people can use to locate the nearest centres.

Journalists should take their cue from technologists to harvest data and present it in a way that the public can interact with. In fact, these skills will be crucial for journalists with the looming digital revolution that is set to kill the traditional media model.

Journalists will need to seek relevance by gaining skills that will ensure they remain relevant. Data journalism will ultimately inform our public discourse and institute issue-oriented politics, which the public can interrogate and hold politicians to account - after all, numbers don't lie.

The writer is the the Star's web manager.

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