This time last week I was sitting in a stuffy room in Braamfontein, hopped up on chicken kebabs and coffee, watching eight groups of exceptionally talented people present the graphics, animations and nascent news features they’d prepared over the course of the day.
All of it was based on massive and complicated datasets from various sources.
Organised by official friends of htxt.africa, the wonderful team at SciBraai (with a supporting role played by Hacks/Hackers Joburg), the room was filled with journalists, data scientists, academics and students. DataQuest II, as it was called, took hard science and turned into graphically interesting stories that could be pitched at a news editor without resorting to the usual grab-a-stat and run tactics of science reporting.
Deep exploration of data (or at least, as deep as you can go in a single day) found stories that covered why electrification projects aren’t helping the poor get out of poverty, why land reform might leave those who receive smallholdings worse off and several investigations into why the concentration of particulate pollution in Johannesburg air is many, many times over the safe global limits.
The winning team included another friend of our site, Ben Myres from MakeGamesSA. They managed to take dry data about average costs of living versus income in rural South Africa and turn it into a game that challenged urbanites to try and keep a typical South African family alive and nourished over the course of a month.
Sure, the game was basic and needed a lot of polish to make it to the front page of News24 (who have a record in this field), but it just showed what can be done in a single day with data and a bit of will.
I have more than a passing interest in this area – I’ve been involved with open data activism in the UK and South Africa and in what little spare time I have I help to organise the Johannesburg chapter of Hacks/Hackers, an organisation that aims to promote data literacy in the newsroom and beyond.
As Simon Rogers, former data journalist for The Guardian and Twitter, now at Google, sums up the value of data-driven story telling for interpreting complex information for readers on his blog. “By exposing and interrogating the data,” Rogers writes, “we can test how accurate it is, mash it up with other datasets to produce results that tell you something new about the news.”
Data-driven journalism and storytelling is about taking datasets – which are all around us in this ever connected world – and finding the significant facts they contain then making them understandable for a general audience. It’s as important for the corporate trying to figure out why costs have risen as it is for the science writer explaining ebola.
But that’s only one side of it. It’s also about finding data and “liberating” it. Particularly data which should be publicly available anyway.
The vast majority of data government gathers, for example, probably never gets used by people in government. But it might be useful for journalists and citizens who want to hold their elected members to account, and it might be even more useful for someone who’s starting a new business and can use data about traffic flows or bin locations to make a profit.
The underlying point is that as tax payers, there’s a lot of data gathered on your behalf. Some of it may be useful, some not: but you should have access to it.
Which is why it’s very exciting that over the next week there’s a series of hackathons not at all dissimilar to last week’s DataQuest, which aim to find value in public datasets and encourage more information to be published under open data policies.
There’s events in Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria (which we’ll be attending) that have been organised by the inimitable Code4SA and partners, who have liberated 300-odd datasets already. and there’s a two day event in Johannesburg put together by Microsoft which has a cash prize of R50 000 for the team that produces the best data story over the course of two days (apparently there’s still time to get involved, if you want the organiser’s email address contact me).
If you’ve even a passing interest in data, any one of these events is going to be well worth going to. And there’s more to come.