From the outside the nondescript red brick building huddled under a bridge over the railway line in Claremont in Cape Town, gives no hint of the quiet revolution happening inside. Raymond Joseph reports.
It is from here that not-for-profit civic tech organisation Code for South Africa is working to inculcate a culture of data journalism in South African newsrooms and also helping civic organisations use data in their work.
Working out of a small office at Codebridge, an affordable co-working space for start-ups and software developers, a significant part of South Africa’s foray into data journalism is being driven, project by project, tool by tool.
Launched a year ago this month after it was a winner in the inaugural African News Innovation Challenge, Code4SA is led by data scientist and open data champion Adi Eyal.
“We work with newsrooms to help them tell stories better with data and with civil society organisations to use data to promote social justice,” says Eyal. “The aim of what we are doing is to promote informed decision-making and we do this by taking data and building tools that deploy it in a way that journalists and other non-tech people are able to use without having to know how to code.”
But, he says, it’s been a long and hard slog because the uptake from the media has been slow and public-funded data is closely guarded and difficult to access.
When Code4SA was launched there was no open data community and very little easily accessible data – the lifeblood of data journalism – available, he says. There is still no government policy for making official data available, he adds.
While a growing number of governments around the world are seeing the value in opening their data to drive innovation and build a tech economy, in South Africa departments usually impose strict conditions on how it can be used if it is made available.
Writing for Daily Maverick last year Eyal said: “It seems somewhat absurd that publicly funded institutions in South Africa should be allowed to copyright data produced using public funds.”
But now things are slowly starting to happen; last week, for example, the City of Cape Town, which holds a treasure trove of useful public data, announced that it would soon launch an open data policy.
“It (the policy) is flawed, but it’s a great next step,” says Eyal.
Nevertheless, having a policy is one thing, getting officials to buy into it and make data available in machine readable formats, rather than as user-unfriendly PDFs, is another.
Another significant breakthrough for the open data movement happened earlier this year at an ‘UnConference’ organised by Code4SA that, for the first time ever, brought local and national government, techies, activists, journalists, civil society representatives and donors together in one place, to seek a way forward.
On the tech front, Code4SA has built a series of open, machine-readable and data rich application programming interfaces (APIs) on top of which news applications, software and web pages can be built. It has resulted in tools like Media Monitoring Africa’s powerful Wazimap, which draws on census and election data and enables journalists to dig deep into data from national right down to local ward level.
Like ProtestMap and NPO Tracker, Wazimap is an excellent research and context tool, while SourceAfrica makes it possible to upload and easily interrogate voluminous amounts of documents and also to link to them in stories. Another useful tool developed by Code4SA is a searchable medicine price registry that allows users to check the regulated prices of medicines and also suggests viable alternatives.
Yet the South African media and journalists have been slow to embrace both data journalism and the many free tools that are available.
To overcome this Code4SA is working in conjunction with School of Data to offer basic and more advanced data training for journalists. Another project embeds ‘data fellows’ in newsrooms for up to four month, to work with journalists on data-driven stories. The hope is that once media bosses see the value this adds, they will hire coders to work alongside their journalists, as is already happening in some bigger newsrooms in the US, Europe and the UK.
“Much of what is being done by South African newsrooms attempting data journalism is largely visualisations and maps, rather than actionable information that people can use to get a better understanding of a situation and act on” says Eyal.
“The investment on a one-off is high so it is important that the tools that are built live on, that newsrooms can use to report on issues and people can act on.”
But Eyal and his team are determined to soldier on. They have seen the future and are working hard to make it a reality in SA – and it is only a matter of time before the media catches on.
Raymond Joseph (@rayjoe) is journalist, trainer, fixer of news rooms, data journ convert.