Becoming Uganda’s Chief Data Complainer
By Lydia Namubiru | @namlyd
Before I left Uganda to start my master’s at the Columbia Journalism School in August 2015, I had been teaching data skills to working journalists in the East African nation. We had trained 78 in the 18 months before my departure for New York.
In June 2016, when I returned home after graduation, my employer, the African Centre for Media Excellence had some news for me: As part of its routine research into media practices in the country, the centre had analyzed nearly 3,000 stories in local news media and found that only four of them had originated from data analysis.
In my mind, this meant that our training efforts had yielded nothing!
The news was certainly bad, but not necessarily surprising. The lack of data skills is only half of the problem here. The other half: The data itself is not available.
I once said to Dean Steve Coll that the biggest difference between practicing journalism in the U.S. (as we did at the J-School), and doing it in Uganda (as I did for years before J-School) was: “You get actual, useful information here when you Google.” That really is true. It’s not that data of public interest doesn’t exist in Uganda. Our technocrats conduct censuses, track crime, study people’s health behavior, track the economy etc., just as it happens elsewhere. The difference is in public access.
In the U.S., microdata from the census is online for download; in Uganda, two years after the last census, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics released more than 1,000 PDFs of tables and text, like this one.
One’s interest is better restricted to the statistics they choose to make public. Getting any additional data from the bureau is a process of indeterminate length. Four months ago, I requested a 10 percent sample of the census microdata for use in data journalism training. I am still waiting for the bureau to even acknowledge receipt of my request. So in the setting of a real, fast-paced newsroom, it isn’t surprising that data analysis would not occur to Ugandan journalists as a source of stories. It’s far easier and more productive, to call up a source for a controversial quote and make news out of that.
Yet when I first saw the evidence that our trainings were not producing data journalists, I wanted to quit my job, regardless of the fact that for this same job, I had overlooked the many great opportunities with which the J-School connected.
“What’s the point of teaching data journalism in a data vacuum?” I wondered to myself.
Then again, what’s the point in quitting altogether?
Instead, I have appointed myself chief data complainer in this country, and luckily for me, my boss is agreeable. A brief job description for chief data complainer goes something like this:
- Crawl the internet for any research and data-related events in Kampala
- Invite yourself to these events, preferably as a panel speaker. But if you have to invite yourself there as just another body in the room, take what you can get.
- When you grab hold of the mic to complain zealously about the dearth of open data
- After the event, ask this, of as many individuals as possible: “Do you have data you can let us publish for use by journalists?”
The media centre I work for is taking this role seriously. In August, we acquired an open data portal (www.data.ug) that had once been championed by an expatriate open data enthusiast. When Reinier Battenberg left the country in 2015, the utility fell into limbo. We are reviving it and will publish any datasets we get from my data hunts.
We are hoping that combining open data publishing with data journalism training will put a dent in the near-complete absence of data analysis for news.
I don’t know if this will prove to be the magic formula. “What if it isn’t?” I ask myself many mornings. “Will I end up wasting my training from Columbia’s awesome data journalism program?” But then, I commit myself for better or worse, with the words of Miley Cyrus from that Hannah Montana movie my daughter likes: “There’s always gonna be another mountain. I’m always gonna wanna make it move.”
Lydia Namubiru is a 2016 M.S. graduate of the Columbia Journalism School’s data concentration. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.