Blog | October 18, 2016 | Anastasia-Areti Gavrili

Two weeks ago, hundreds of open data enthusiasts from all over the world met at the International Open Data Conference 2016 in Madrid to discuss how open data can achieve greater impact on a range of issues from government accountability and public spending, to gender equality.

While walking in and out of the different thematic sessions, I noticed practitioners talking a lot about communication of data, asking: how can we help investigative journalists open up data in order to fight corruption? How do we get the media to publish more gender data? How can we use data journalism to influence public policies?

This strong craving for data-driven investigations and the reliance on data journalists to unravel the ‘world’s hidden truths’, made me first and foremost look into enrolling into a data journalism course – that’s me being honest here! - but it also made me wonder… what does it take to become open data-savvy?

Are journalists around the world actually equipped to make sense of open data and find the stories behind it – or is this an assumption we seriously need to challenge?

Open up the data and journalists will follow with groundbreaking stories… we hope

Data journalism’ only differs from ‘words journalism’ in that we use a different kit. We all sniff out, report, and relate stories for a living. It’s like ‘photo journalism’; just swap the camera for a laptop. — Brian Boyer, Chicago Tribune

But you need to know how to use a camera in the first place in order to be a photojournalist, right?

Well, to be a data journalist you need to know how to get to the data; analyse it, pick out what’s interesting, visualise it and keep it in perspective. For most people, it is neither easy nor intuitive: requires training and dedicated data journalism units.

When we walked into the newsroom everyone thought of us as nerds. After a year, everyone thought we were Superman. - Raúl Sánchez, Data journalist,

During the ‘Data and Data Journalism’ session at #IODC16, it was obvious that Spain is doing something right. Data literacy has gotten into the most influential newsrooms, such as El Confidencial, El Mundo and, winning international prizes and contributing to global data-driven investigations.

Migrant Files

El Confidencial’s data journalist, Daniele Grasso was part of the Migrant Files team, a major data-driven project around Europe. During IODC 2016, he highlighted that data from this investigation was later picked up by governments, NGOs and media globally and led to changes in the European Union’s migration policy.

Open data can have incredible impact when someone has the skills to understand what’s hidden in the datasets and process that information for mass consumption and reflection. But, while the Spanish media are a ‘success story’, the number of trained data journalists out there is actually still quite limited.

Building a legacy of open data skills so journalists really can be society’s watchdog

Many Making All Voices Count partners are using open data, with most working closely with the media to support stronger, data-based stories that give an accurate picture of what government is doing – but it’s not all plain sailing.

In Ghana, the initiative of the World Wide Web Foundation Code4Ghana, established a partnership programme with local media houses to make sure that open data can be accessed, interpreted and communicated by media in a way that is understandable for ordinary citizens.

A community of ‘data fellows’ trained journalists on data analysis and helped to establish data-driven journalism as a critical component in Ghana’s media organisations, leaving behind a legacy of skills within the teams where they worked.

In Kenya, the Mtaani Initiative project, Sauti ya Mtaa, brought together some of the most successful slum-focused communication initiatives in Nairobi. Citizen journalists partnered with digital storytellers, mappers and bloggers to produce collaborative multimedia reports that use a mix of online and offline tools, including open data portals. But, the team were new to working with open data, and had major issues in finding the right information for the stories they wanted to write.

Even when we were aware of major issues, such as arson being used as a method of forced eviction, we didn’t know where to turn to get quality data to illustrate this. – Mtaani Initiative Project Manager, Clarissa Maracci.

One of their key lessons was not to underestimate the limitations of using open data: information on open data portals is often out-of-date and incomplete; where publicly accessible data does exist, it is not always specific enough for projects to use; and government portals usually present information at a national or state-level, but often don’t capture community-level issues, which feel more real and relevant for audiences.

The Philippines Centre of Investigative Journalism, utilises data journalism to support more informed and inclusive elections. The team popularises interactive data stories from Money Politics Online, enabling citizens to monitor candidates and elected officials and their management of disaster aid, official development aid, and other funds of 80 provinces and over 2000 cities and towns across the country.

Our lives – and our government policies - are increasingly influenced by data, so we’d better find a way to understand it

I had a mixed reaction to the enthusiasm for data journalism at IODC: my first was to be excited about how much open data projects see the media as one of their key audiences; but my second was that many projects stopped short of actually working with the media, of getting their input when they are designing open data portals, and finding out whether the media they see as an audience is actually able (and willing) to use the open data platforms that projects propose.

As a former journalist myself, I can vouch for the fact that it’s not easy to make sense of most open data portals; stories do not just leap out at you; and you’re very worried about mis-representing the data you’re looking at.

Training for data journalism skills is essential.  Bridging the gap between open data projects and their media audience is vital. If we don’t do these things, we’re in danger of creating a big online data graveyard that no-one visits, and wasting the incredible opportunity that the open data movement is providing.

About the author

Anastasia-Areti Gavrili is Communication Officer for Making All Voices Count, based at Hivos International in the Hague.