Making Data Accessible through Storytelling in the News
Mwananchi, A Leading Media House, Is Increasingly Publishing Data-Driven Stories about Health and Economic Growth in Tanzania.
Data is intimidating. For most people, statistics lack relevance to their daily lives. Spreadsheets, numbers, and data in general are perceived to be the domain of “specialists.”
To make data relevant, therefore, means making it relatable, accessible, and understandable. One platform whose mandate in society is to unpack complex issues and make them easily comprehensible to everyday people is the media. Media also understands, as a core business principle, that its audiences want information that resonates with their lives but also adds value to their understanding of the world around them. Data-driven journalism, where data is used to help analyze issues and then filter and shape the ‘angle’ for local audiences, achieves both.
Mwananchi is one of Tanzania’s largest bilingual news outlets, and is owned by Africa’s second largest media conglomerate (the Kenya-based Nation Media Group), with a national audience —including in the target communities in DREAMS districts where Data Zetu works. Mwananchi sets the agenda for public discourse as well as innovation in journalism. This makes it the ideal ‘amplification’ channel to pioneer data-driven storytelling in East Africa’s second largest economy.
“Mwananchi is the ideal amplification channel to pioneer data-driven storytelling in East Africa’s second largest economy.”
HURUmap, developed by Data Zetu partner Code for Tanzania, combines education, census, and PEPFAR data to help digital storytellers analyze data.
Despite the clear opportunities for media adoption, obstacles persist. At Mwananchi, while the appetite for digital-first, data-driven stories was there, there was a cultural impediment to instituting data-journalism in the newsroom.
There was a skills gap among staff, with a need for increased trainings around accessing, cleaning, and visualizing data quickly and cost-efficiently in ways that tell actionable stories to broad audiences who might themselves have low data literacy.
Another challenge is a lack of infrastructure to be able to produce digital data stories. Mwananchi’s in-house content management system (CMS), which controls its editorial workflow and which underpins how content is published on its website and mobile platforms, cannot support interactive data-driven visualizations. And,
Mwananchi cannot afford to buy proprietary data visualization tools.
On top of all this, while management showed appetite for data-driven journalism, editors did not immediately appreciate its value, and reporters weren’t willing to change their approach as long as the status quo was acceptable.
Data Zetu, through its partner Code for Tanzania, adopted a multi-pronged approach to address these challenges:
- Support senior management to align data journalism with wider priorities.
- Develop enabling technologies to facilitate data visualization and analysis.
- Training journalists and internal champions with technical support.
The result of these efforts is http://data.mwananchi.co.tz/, an interactive web portal and a new home for the media group’s Data Desk. The page is deliberately integrated into Mwananchi’s main website, as part of the media group’s core news offering.
Mwananchi’s data desk produced 82 stories to date in 2017, making data about key issues accessible to everyday citizens. Many of these stories focus on priority sectors including sexual and reproductive health, health in general, gender equality, education, and economic growth. In its bid to mainstream data-driven reportage in the newsroom, Data Zetu has deliberately not confined its supports to just these development issues. It is rather encouraging journalists across the organization to adopt data-driven reportage, to help instill a lasting organizational culture.
“Mwananchi’s data desk produced 82 stories to date in 2017, making data about key issues accessible to everyday citizens.”
Data journalism stories continue to be published on a weekly basis. A sampling of them, including data journalism at other media partners, is available here: https://medium.com/data-zetu/numbers-in-the-news-digest-1-d4773f979f11
- High proportion of pregnant women with the HIV virus in Mbarali, Kyela sparks a new battle against AIDS— Mwananchi
- Are Cancer Rates Soaring in Tanzania?— FikraPevu
- In Tanzania, Hepatitis Is a Serious Concern, but HIV/AIDS Remains Deadlier — Global Voices
- Report paints dim picture of primary education performance — The Guardian
Initial engagements with Mwananchi had been ongoing before the Data Zetu launch, through Code for Tanzania. These early preparatory engagements created sufficient energy and interest within Mwananchi to get policy endorsement by senior management and to secure matching resources from the media company itself for establishment of a full-time data desk. This process included helping senior management at Mwananchi align data journalism with wider corporate priorities. This enabled Mwananchi to pledge its own budget and personnel towards the project.
Next, Data Zetu then built enabling technology inside Mwananchi, to fix its CMS constraints, while also building free external (open source) tools to offer fast and cost-effective data analysis and visualization. Other enabling technologies that were deployed include HURUmap, an online tool that integrates key national statistics in a visually accessible way.
Data Zetu then tackled the human capacity challenges by delivering on-site training and technical support, helping the newsroom identify internal champions, and offering ‘rapid response’ external experts to help solve bottlenecks. And, to ‘de-risk’ some of the early experimentation, Data Zetu provided small story grants to help the newsroom produce proof-of-concept stories that demonstrate the potential for data-driven storytelling.
Data Zetu then helped identify and train internal data champions at Mwananchi, and after receiving evidence of commitment appointed the designated data editor, Nuzulack Dausen, as a Data Zetu Media Fellow within Mwananchi’s existing human resource structure, a significant milestone, where a major media company is investing resources and re-orienting its newsroom to entrench a culture of data-driven journalism.
This process has not always been easy, however. Creating lasting institutional change is a complex and lengthy process. And, changing editorial culture and production systems requires delicate diplomacy and trust. The Data Zetu team has had to balance, on one hand, its mission to cultivate data-driven storytelling about specific priority sectors while respecting the editorial independence of the host newsroom. The fact that Data Zetu is shaping core editorial policies is evidence of systemic impact. It means Data Zetu is influencing core business / workflow practices at Mwananchi, rather than just buying short-lived publicity in its ‘sponsored content’ pages.
Supporting Data Zetu’s collaboration with Mwananchi is a parallel initiative called Pesacheck, a fact-checking initiative of Code for Africa. Data Zetu has supported a Media Fellow to develop data-driven reporting about priority sectors using Pesacheck.
Outcomes and Impact
The outputs of this activity—a series of data-driven news reports about health, SRH, education, and economic growth issues in the country—are a reflection of a key outcome: it establishes a self-sustaining mechanism to give citizens better access to actionable data about their everyday lives in ways that are easily digestible.
While we are able to measure online engagement with the content, with Google Analytics indicating over 840,000 website views and over 25,000 social media engagements by Nov 6, the most significant impacts are the systemic changes in the newsroom itself. The creation of a Data Desk that is reshaping reportage far beyond the initial thematic focus, plus the increase in substantive coverage of development issues important to PEPFAR, suggest that the value of data is becoming entrenched in a key infomediary.
Moving forward, the team has used the Mwananchi proof-of-concept success story to embed a similar Media Fellow at Tanzania’s other major media group, the IPP’s Guardian newsroom, and is also engaging media groups that operate subnational media in Mbeya and Kyela, including Clouds FM and Kyela FM radio stations, to mirror the data desks model there.
Data Zetu aims to empower communities to make better, more evidence-based decisions to improve their lives. Through partnerships and collaborations with local communities, Data Zetu works with stakeholders to build skills and develop digital and offline tools that make information accessible to everyone.