Western media in general, and data journalism in particular, is in the midst of an identity crisis…or at least it should be. Obsessive coverage of the latest polls, live election maps, public opinion surveys during the US elections and Brexit vote accomplished little more than holding a mirror up to citizens.
And what citizens saw was partisanship, prejudice, confusion, fear and ignorance. But they did not see useful information: little that could inform their vote and little to forestall disastrous decisions.
I have spent the last five years as a nomadic data journalism trainer, helping set up data journalism teams in developing countries for a simple purpose: to provide information to make citizens’ lives better. And as it turns out, what makes people’s lives better in developing countries isn’t so different from the policies that ensure the health of well being of people in thriving democracies. From Afghanistan to Guatemala, from Kenya to Myanmar, the same priorities come up again and again: equality, health, jobs, education.
Access to family planning is crucial for public health
With the contraceptive and abortion debate raging in the United States, developing countries are predicting the fallout of US government funds for family planning program. In Kenya, journalists I worked with found that restricted contraceptive access prompted a surge in illegal abortions and in Pakistan, large, poor families.
The journalists were able to tell these stories with data despite prevailing conservative religious culture that often makes such topics taboo. Similar stories appear in Western media, investigating why high teen pregnancy rates persist in some parts of the country because of restricted access to contraceptives.
Public education is key to equality
In face of a global push towards privatization of education systems, many parents are trying to figure out what is best for their children’s future. A Pakistan story showing parents that despite the growing preference for sending children to private school over public school in the remote Khyber Pass region of Pakistan, most graduating students in both public and private schools can’t pass basic standardized tests.
The Kenyan government struggles to deliver quality education in remote areas because of low teacher retention after a spate of terrorist attacks.
The Houston Chronicle documented a policy to reduce the budget by kicking out children from special education programs.
Broken justice systems favor the privileged
In fact checking politicians’ promises to make communities safer, data everywhere suggests that justice systems are rarely equipped for genuine justice and the poor pay the price. In Afghanistan, a law aimed and controlling the thriving opium trade landed mostly poor illiterate drivers and farmers in prison while most drug kingpins walk free. Pakistan’s lawless Baluchistan province has a court system that is so endangered and short-staffed that justice for most victims of crime is years away. ProPublica investigated algorithms that disproportionally punish blacks.
Globalizing public interest reporting
Even though I work in developing countries, I think the challenge of making data journalism useful is universal. My hope is that we will use cross-border data journalism to explore universal challenges such as domestic violence, food scarcity and inequality to depoliticize public interest coverage and ensure citizens and governments make decisions based on evidence, not politics.
Eva Constantaras is a journalist with Internews, specializing in investigative data journalism, specially as a tool to enhance transparency. She has been active in the internet health movement and played an active role in the delivery of MozFest 2016. She is a member of our first cohort of “Network50.” Read her recent interview with Mozilla.