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Talking with... Eva Constantaras

The challenges of teaching data journalism in developing countries and more, in this exclusive interview

September 2, 2014
(photo: Eva Constantaras)

As it happens with most “buzzwords”, there’s a tendency to think of data journalism as something new, a consequence of the technological advances that facilitated the exchange of information and the whole gathering of data. If in one hand, we have a lot to thank to this new digital environment, on the other hand it’s becoming quite obvious that data journalism is something that has been a part of many newsrooms, with a reasonable number of professionals that have been exploiting data to find stories for over a decade.

Among those, Eva Constantaras is one of the most well-known names within the journalistic community. Currently, Eva is the Internews Data Journalism Advisor and specializes in cross-border journalism projects to combat corruption and encourage transparency. She has managed projects and reported from across Latin America, Asia and East Africa on topics ranging from displacement and kidnapping by organised crime networks to extractive industries and election violence. Her reporting has appeared in media outlets including “El Mundo” and “El Confidencial” in Spain and “the Seattle Times” and “El Tiempo” in the Americas.

We had the pleasure of meeting Eva at the 2014 Open Knowledge Festival, that took place in Berlin, las July. We attended her session, “Defining and Designing Successful Data Journalism Initiatives in Developing Countries“, in which participants were able to share among each others some of the success stories – and failures – in data journalism initiatives, and more recently we had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about the state of data journalism, Internews activities and the growth of the Open Data community.

Visual Loop (VL) – Eva, why is it important to make data journalism “Sexy”, especially in the context of developing countries?

Eva Constantaras (EC) – Data journalism in developing countries is no walk in the park. Scant and bad data means it takes even longer for journalists to identify and clean data to use for storytelling. A predominantly analog media industry means that even if journalists create an interactive visualization, sometimes the media outlet’s online publishing platform is not designed for embedding interactive content. Low levels of data, digital and graphical literacy among the general population mean that even if the newspaper or television station uses the visualization, it isn’t a sure thing that people will understand what it means. Finally, non-existent or inadequate access to information and press freedom laws can make both data access and protection from retaliation especially challenging.

So, all those factors can be discouraging to journalists. But there are also a lot of reasons to be excited, including tremendous potential to revealing corruption and inequality and promoting accountability and data-driven policy decisions, which is why lots of journalists get into the profession in the first place. And they don’t have to do it alone. In Developing Data Journalism in the Developing World I explain my realization that open data and anti-corruption activities in developing countries are not led by individual journalists or a news’ outlet’s data desk, but rather by open data communities that include journalists, civic hackers, academics and think tanks who together can overcome these challenges.

Initial efforts like Politics of Health ahead of the 2013 Kenyan presidential elections fact-checked candidates’ campaign promises, and visualized the reality of Kenyan’s priority health concerns: malarial risk, maternal mortality, and anti-retroviral shortages. The Data Dredger was the only finalist from Africa in the 2013 Data Journalism Awards but more importantly, it proved to journalists that data enabled them to produce issue-driven election coverage not found anywhere else by showing, for example, that it would take 21 years to fulfill campaign promises for universal healthcare in Kenya.

Low levels of data, digital and graphical literacy among the general population mean that even if the newspaper or television station uses the visualization, it isn’t a sure thing that people will understand what it means.

VL – And when did you became interested in Data Journalism?

EC – Data journalism has been around for a long time and I’ve been involved since before it became its own specialization. A previous editor of mine dubbed me the President of the Dead Journalists Society because as a journalist and Fulbright Scholar in Colombia and at UNESCO in Paris, part of my job was to identify, investigate, map and categorize violence against journalists.

Part of the reason that Colombia has such a strong support network for journalists, despite decades of civil war, is because they realized early on the value of collecting detailed data about threats and violence against journalists and using that data to develop safety procedures, legal resources and advocacy strategies to ensure journalists could keep doing their jobs.

For the Seattle Times, I also applied data principles to drive investigations into topics such as doctors who received payments for leaking results of drug trials and accusations of sexual abuse against female inmates in Washington State prisons.

From these experiences, I knew that data journalism in the West and in developing countries looks very different. As a Google Data Journalism Scholar in Spain in 2012-2013 I developed a data journalism handbook specifically designed to adapt materials Western data journalism training for developing country contexts.

Since then I’ve been piloting these materials around the world and also developing models for cross-border data journalism such as Land Quest, which explores the conflict of European donors and private sector interests in Kenya and its impact on development.

VL – You’re currently based in Kenya, and experiencing first-hand the advancements and results of data journalism projects in the country. What are the main lessons you carry with you all the time, from all that work developed by you and Internews?

The ground-breaking investigations produced by our fellows were driven by the objective of the fellowship: stories they produce should enable citizens to advocate for better policies and make better decisions for their communities. Apps, visualizations and other interactive digital content were not, in themselves, the objective but rather tools to inform public opinion.

Fellow Paul Wafula writing for the Standard newspaper exposed that the for six months the Kenyan parliament had been holding hostage the funds for a cash transfer program for the poorest Kenyans while they tried to change the allocation criteria from need to politics.

He uncovered missing funds, inefficient distribution and ghost recipients beyond the story of members of parliament fighting for a larger share of the funds to win points with their constituencies, resulting in a poor person in the richest county being eight times more likely to receive funds than a poor person in the poorest county. After the story ran on the front page for several days, the government ordered an audit to identify and remove ghost recipients, developed new vetting committees that include community leaders and enlisted a mobile banking service to distribute the funding. Several agencies funding the project raised questions about why the government allowed politicians to change the original distribution plan that had been approved by donors. An overview of all the projects produced by the fellows, links to their stories and an explanation of their impact can be found here.

As I explain in Developing Data Journalism in the Developing World one of my first realizations was that there are quite a lot of steps between exposing journalists to the tools of data journalism and data journalism actually making it into local newspapers, television and radio. We first needed to grow an open data community and to do that we needed both an online incubator for data access and offline incubator for training and community building.

After building Data Dredger, a resource for Kenyan journalists to download, embed, and publish visualizations of Kenyan data and running a four-month fellowship for Kenyan journalists, a graphic designer and a developer we have a lot of advice for others trying to introduce data journalism into traditional media environments:

  • Learning data journalism skills takes time and commitment from trainees, their editors and publishers to a new way of producing news.
  • Growing relationships among journalists and the people who have data (governments, think tanks and academics) is vital to making data journalism sustainable and credible in countries without a robust open data policy and portal.
  • Online production and publication is vital for journalists during the learning process not only to practice new skills, but also to develop an online brand so that when they return to the newsroom, they are given the time and resources to produce data stories.
  • Data journalism is teamwork and journalists, graphic designers and developers need incentives to work together on projects (reporting grants, formal partnering agreements, awards and other forms of recognition).
  • The consumer should drive decisions about what format your story takes whether it be a radio piece for a rural audience with a trusted local community radio, an interactive online visualization for a wired urban middle class or an investigative story for a print publication.

VL – And can you tell us a bit about the projects Internews is developing and supporting to empower local media worldwide?

EC – Internews projects are as diverse as the environments we work in. Internews is a non-profit organization that provides communities the resources to produce local news and information with integrity and independence. With global expertise and reach, Internews trains both media professionals and citizen journalists, introduces innovative media solutions, increases coverage of vital issues and helps establish policies needed for open access to information.

In South Sudan, Internews has developed “Boda Boda Talk Talk” an innovative recorded audio program to provide life-saving and life-enhancing information to people displaced at two of the UNMISS Protection of Civilians sites in Juba following the conflict in South Sudan that broke out in mid-December 2013. The service utilizes a quad bike that moves around the site playing the programs in dedicated public spaces, at “Listening Stops”, through speakers that are bolted to the bike. A USB flash drive with the twice-weekly professionally produced program is plugged into speakers.

In the hours after Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev, reports started surfacing that there were documents floating in the reservoir on his palatial 350-acre estate outside the capital. With Internews logistical coordination, journalists made a decision to cooperate among all the news organizations and to save first and report later. To demonstrate their transparency, the organizers quickly moved to get documents up. By early Tuesday, nearly 400 documents, a fraction of the estimated 20,000 to 50,000 documents, had been posted. Dozens more are being added by the hour. The new site is and represents the richest source of data and information about Ukrainian government corruption ever discovered.

In Gaza, more than 215,000 Palestinians, almost 8% of Gaza’s population, have been displaced by the current crisis, according to UNOCHA. Damage to critical infrastructure, including the only power station in Gaza and health facilities, is heavily restricting access to basic services and has shut down 23 out of 25 radio stations in Gaza. Hundreds of thousands of people are completely without electricity, and 80% of the population experiences rolling blackouts of up to 22 hours per day. With the situation dire and the airwaves basically inaccessible to independent stations in Gaza, Internews from its office in Ramallah is connecting Gaza’s reporters to operational outlets in the West Bank, and ensuring that West Bank stations that reach Gaza can serve the population with critical information and an SMS service to disseminate humanitarian information. The six radio stations that are part of the Internews-supported Jossor Radio and TV Network are broadcasting live for various periods of time during the day.

Thanks to our presence in over 20 countries, we can respond quickly to both emergencies and opportunities to find innovative strategies to deliver information to citizens. We have the networks and knowledge to design agile programs that can adapt to changing environments, whether a crackdown on media freedom, an environmental crisis or a new open data opportunity.

With global expertise and reach, Internews trains both media professionals and citizen journalists, introduces innovative media solutions, increases coverage of vital issues and helps establish policies needed for open access to information.

VL – It was really great to meet you during the Open Knowledge Festival, in Berlin. Did you manage to attend other sessions? Was there any particular one that you’d like to mention?

EC – “Following the Money: Making the case for transparency and open data” opened my eyes to the potential for collaboration among different groups who approach transparency through very different lenses with the end goal of getting better information to citizens.

To give a couple of examples, Oluseun Onigbinde, from BudgIT Nigeria, has a wealth of knowledge and open source code to make budget data accessible to low data literacy populations through visualizations; Jim Cust from Natural Resource Governance Initiative volunteered data and resources to kick off our data journalism initiative on extractive industries for Afghan journalists while Samantha Custer from AidData is piloting similar model of tracking foreign/donor aid to track budget flows within countries, something of huge interest to our partner media in almost all the countries we work. Once we all began discussing the roles of different open data advocacy organizations, it became clear that much more collaboration is required. We need to grow cohesive open data communities that include open data aggregators and advocates, think tanks and civic hackers that make sense of the data and journalists who can visualize and get the stories out to citizens.

VL – And what about your session, “Defining and Designing Successful Data Journalism Initiatives in Developing Countries“, for those who didn’t manage to attend, can you tell us what was it like?

EC – Data journalism has tremendous potential to drive transparency and uncover corruption in developing countries and many donors are funding data journalism as a means to good governance and transparency. The session focused on what it takes to grow a sustainable data community. Together, we evaluate the most common strategies: conferences, boot camps, fellowships, hackathons and reporting grants and discussed openly which have produced concrete data journalism that have had a social and policy impact.

50+ participants worked in groups to identify their most illustrative examples of success and failures to help others design smarter activities. Examples included great budget visualizations that engaged the public through the media, but only one person on the team actually knew how to use the software to produce the visualization. On the flip side, another group had created a website to visualize aid data but nobody ever accessed the site and those who did found it confusing. Both of these experiences illustrated the need to establish who needs to be trained to ensure a viable product that can be maintained after the initial launch and how the target audience consumes news, which, in the case of many of our participants, is offline.

A common theme addressed difficulties in bringing together developers and journalists on projects. One group sited a successful example of a mapping platform in Latin America that superimposes environmental journalism stories on maps of environmental data such as protected zones and mining areas. This way, both data and traditional storytelling are present on the same platform. Another group paired an NGO that designed and implemented a public opinion poll with journalists who published the results. In both cases, the developers and statisticians generating data stuck with the skills they were good at while the journalists became more data literate but were not expected to become journo-coders in order to report on data.

Another participant from South Africa highlighted the challenges of embedding coders in newsrooms, who generally end up either isolated or overwhelmed by newsrooms either indifferent to data or too demanding for digital products. This experience echoes embedded coder challenges faced by a similar program in Kenya. Overall, participants shared honestly and openly about successes and failures and advocated for more “Fail Faire” type events where practitioners share knowledge and experiences not only with each other but also with donors.

These were the overall conclusions:

  • Sustainable data journalism activities require the buy-in of journalists, developers, editors and publishers
  • Finding good matches between media outlets, CSOs and developers all committed to data are key to productive collaborations
  • How people consume information should dictate narrative or visual form of data products
  • Data journalism requires teamwork, whether inside or outside of the newsroom
  • Partnering with  and consulting data experts can help avert mistakes in data analysis and interpretation
  • Storytelling to convey data helps people understand and connect with the issue
  • Not a lot of resources are available for data journalism tailored to developing country contexts
  • Data integrity is an emerging issue of concern as data journalism increases in popularity
  • Topics, projects or specific production goals can help make data journalism activities more realistic and achievable
  • Sharing lessons learned is essential to designing more effective data journalism activities

VL – During that session, one of the most interesting points raised was why not to visualize data in developing countries, something that makes sense, for instances in the context where radio is the predominant medium. What’s you experience, from the infographics you use in Internews Kenya? Have you had any feedback/result that you’d like to share?

EC – Newsrooms in Kenya are leapfrogging ahead in adopting data visualization as an innovative way of news storytelling. Internews as a data journalism training provider, however wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning news audiences ascribe to infographics, how people understand the visualization of data and whether they retain the information shared through the visual images. In addition, as an infographics service, through Data Dredger, Internews wanted to make sure, based on evidence, that the infographics provided make sense to news audiences as a form of contemporary cultural expression that provides reliable information.

What we found, in a nutshell, was that bar charts are generally considered credible and “scientific,” bubble charts have little to no traction with Kenyan audiences and the best form of data representation to both interest the audience and ensure they gain insight from the data are pictorial infographics. The complete study, Audience Reception of News Infographics: Cultural and Generational Considerations will be published later this year but a summary of the findings include the visualizations used to test for comprehension, preference and the perceived usefulness.

Above all the research study, which was limited to a survey of 49 people in Nairobi, highlights the need for a deeper understanding and tools to measure the effectiveness of data visualization in various contexts and information ecosystems.

VL – Overall, what are your impressions about the Open Data community, after those two days in Berlin? Was it a confirmation of what you were seeing previously, or did it surprise you in any way?

EC – For me, it was very refreshing to go to a conference that wasn’t all about preaching to the converted.

I think the open data movement has matured to the point where we are all starting to open up a bit about the challenges we face and the help we need to overcome them. Open data isn’t a silver bullet to eliminate corruption and transform government. A lot of the conversations centered around trying to bring together the necessary players for a healthy open data community, so matching up the people who have the data with the people who have to tool with the people who have the target audience with the people who can connect with policymakers. That process brings together all different sectors of the open data community who really do need to find each other in order to advance local open data initiatives.

Almost everyone I spoke with was offering or asking for assistance and it is that openness that I think will lead to the greatest results in the end.

Open data isn’t a silver bullet to eliminate corruption and transform government.

VL – To close, Eva, what’s coming up next for you and Internews? Any special project or initiative that you can talk about?

EC – Next month we officially launch our equivalent of the New York Times Chronicle to examine 30 years of HIV coverage by the Daily Nation, the largest daily newspaper in Kenya. The interactive visualizations provide a means for journalists to explore trends in the media’s treatment of HIV as a political, economic, social and scientific challenge to Kenyans. Through the visualizations, journalists can answer important questions such as when specific high-risk groups were identified, scientific breakthroughs took place and treatment became widespread as well as broader themes such as the role of stigma and education in the HIV conversation. The findings from this exploration can be compared to the research trends explored on the Thirty Years of HIV website to find out if more mentions of high risk groups correspond to a decrease in infection rates for these groups or if scientific discoveries changed investments in HIV treatment.

These visualisations are meant to help journalists find answers to questions about how HIV has been covered in the past, what it’s impact may have been and also inform how to best cover HIV and other major health issues in the future. On other parts of the website, journalists can explore other multimedia content about the HIV conversation including an interactive timeline, infographics breaking down the demographics of HIV and interviews with the doctors, public health officials and journalists who have experienced the last three decades on the frontlines of the fight against the disease. Journalists can integrate any of the data, visualizations or multimedia content into their own anniversary coverage of HIV for their respective media outlets. As access to Internet is low, the content will also be part of a national traveling museum exhibit that will make its way around Kenya starting in October. Keep an eye on Internews Data Dredger for more information.

We are also actively looking to expand cross-border collaborative reporting projects based on the Land Quest model. We are working on identifying Western media outlets that are interested in data-driven content from developing countries. For example, over the next few months we will be working with journalists to investigate Afghanistan’s extractive industries, the economic prospects for the West Bank and Gaza and corruption in public transportation and its impact on traffic safety in Kenya, all topics that we think could generate both local and international interest. Local journalists benefit from working hand-in-hand with experienced international journalists as more than just stringers and can often publish more controversial and longer-form investigations than they would be able to in their local media alone. For international media, it gets their journalists access to veteran journalists to partner with for explanatory, data-driven coverage of an issue that they might only cover superficially otherwise. This type of North-South collaborative reporting is very new and we are excited to see where it takes us.

VL – Thank you very much, Eva!

EC -Thank you!


We appreciate the time Eva dedicated answering our questions in such depth. You can contact her about collaborating on data journalism projects and follow her updates via Twitter (@evaconstantaras).And keep up with Internews Kenya activities by visiting the website.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.