Journalism in Africa has struggled significantly for a long time. Part of the problem results from a lack of resources and a lack of access to key tools and methods that allow journalism to succeed. Furthermore, the problem is exacerbated by impact of foreign media. Often, the news agenda is decided by foreign organizations such as BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press. These outlets have the resources to come and report on what they perceive to be the issues. However, these journalists lack the ability to understand the nuances of the continent, which often results in irresponsible reporting that is sometimes even false.
Code for Africa was developed to help solve this problem. Justin Arenstein, an International Center for Journalists Knight Fellow, founded the organization in 2012. Code for Africa was designed to bring change to journalism throughout Africa by training journalists, developing resources to make data more accessible and relevant, and building fact-checking systems to ensure accuracy. The program extends beyond what is typically considered journalism as well. Code for Africa has developed several projects to help with holding the government and corporations accountable. The data they digitize and mine is also made available to the public so all are able to stay educated.
Code for Africa works to help journalists and citizens across the continent with more than 100 projects, which include assistance in “data journalism and citizen reporter apps to fact-checking and forensic data analysis tools, data visualization and geo-narrative platforms.”
The organization measures its success based on if the programs lead to lasting change and whether the programs are able to replicated and on any scale. Based on these measures, one can be confident is saying that the organization and its programs are successful as they have spread across the continent and into different sized communities and countries. Code for Africa also works to ensure that there is funding for projects, which sometimes struggle to get funding from grant organizations that are more “risk-averse.”
- The next step for journalism is into the digital realm, but that often requires significant capital and resources
- Stepping into the digital realm means more of a focus on data and interactive projects
- Traditional journalism has to change and adapt for digital platforms, especially the types of platforms common in Africa
- Taking government data and making it available to the public is often risky and requires safeguards
- Making data available and useable is about more than just benefitting journalists. It’s also about inspiring the average citizen to become
active in keeping their governments accountable in the ways that matter most to them.
As mentioned previously, journalism in Africa faces several significant struggles. There is not much money in journalism. Arguably, the more troubling issue is that African journalists are unable to tell their own story. News organizations, based in places like London, New York and Paris, often decide what is worth covering in Africa and what is not. While there are newspapers and other news organization that are local, most of their content comes from wire services like Reuters and the Associated Press. As a result, much of the news across the continent is the same, and not specialized to the area the newspaper is located in. The inability to decide for themselves what is news and what is not can be compared to a limitation on freedom of expression in Africa. Furthermore, the lack of money and resources often means that the most talented journalists in Africa leave the area for other, more lucrative opportunities.
Additionally, there is a high level of corruption across Africa. This is only exacerbated by the lack of transparency in the government. Even the officially released government data is often considered “dirty” and inadequate, which limits the ability to truly understand what is going on in the government.
Finally, the lack of consistent electricity throughout much of Africa means that mobile phones are a key piece of technology. Desktop computers have not really caught on in Africa, but mobile phones and other handheld technology has. It is estimated that mobile phone usage is expected to grow up to 20 times by 2019 across the continent.
These factors make it especially important that the programs from Code for Africa work to address these issues. Many of their programs are accessible from mobile devices and can be interacted with through text messages and data. Furthermore, the programs need to address the issues with journalism specifically gaps in training and resources. Finally, the programs needed to work to increase accountability throughout the governments across the continent. It was especially important to the Code for Africa developers that normal citizens be inspired to make a civic change.
Justin Arenstein founded the program, but the program has expanded extensively and developed partnerships across the world. The core area of the program is directed by a group of individuals based in a “tech hubs” also known as CitizenLabs. There are several CitizenLabs across the continent where citizens and journalists can go for help. The core group is based in Kenya.
Code for Africa has partnerships with many organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The World Bank, the International Center for Journalists, and the Global Editors Network, among others.
The organization also works with a group of investigative newsrooms across 22 countries. In addition, there is what the group calls a “sister federation” of civic labs in 9 other countries, including Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco and Nigeria.
Some of the projects created by Code for Africa have partnerships as well. The StoryLab Academy partners with Google News Lab, HacksHackers Africa, and the World Bank. Programs from Code for Africa have also led to the development of better relationships between the government and their citizens as watchdog citizens have encouraged improvements within the governments.
On their website, Code for Africa lists their goals as:
- Designed to spark the use of open data and digital democracy tools by media and NGOs to engage better citizens
- Focused on empowering active citizenry and strengthening civic watchdogs to improve government accountability and public services
- Harnessing data to build projects
- Using strong mobile and interactive components
- Experimenting with drones, sensors, and other web and mobile toolkits surface hidden stories, engage citizens, and drive systematic change
Many of the organization's projects work to achieve these goals. The StoryLab program works to help the issues as a result of the lack of funding and the lack of training. The journalism academy has four physical bases in addition to a more mobile group that travels to help in newsrooms. They provide training on investigative data analysis, drone journalism, and 360-degree video. StoryLab Academy provides this training through Mass Open Online Courses, which according to the website, “provides a set of flexible beginner and advanced level free, self-paced courses.” There is a set of five core courses – news gathering in the digital age, storytelling, audience engagement, management and sustainability, and digital hygiene: fake news and digital security. Journalists that go through these courses are then better prepared to report on news in Africa in an engaging way. They are also taking advantage of the digital medium that has become the main method of connecting throughout Africa.
Other programs help to achieve their goals of increasing civic engagement throughout the continent. StarHealth increases health sector accountability; GotToVote helps to inform citizens about voting. There are also several programs designed to increase accessibility to documents and data, including openAFRICA and sourceAFRICA. Easy accessibility to data is important, and it is also important that the data is understandable and usable. The programs take information like court records, company and land registers, government gazettes, and NGO and academic research, digitizes it, and then organizes the data. These resources become useful for both journalists and citizens alike.
openAFRICA and sourceAFRICA also manage two funds: one fund for a million dollars a year and another for $500,000 a year. The funds distribute grants that can be used for data driven research and journalism. This helps to address the issue of funding in the newsroom.
The projects produced by Code for Africa have seen pretty significant success, especially in the realm of their work to bring government change. One program, DodgyDoctor, is an app built to be used with SMS. It originated in Kenya, and allowed people to text the app for people to rate their doctors. The app generated so much feedback that it prompted the government in Kenya to make changes to the way that doctors are registered and identification information is managed. The program was recreated in Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania. In Nigeria, the program also saw success significant enough to persuade government reform.
The African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) has also produced successes. Investigative reporting at the program, which is supported by Code for Africa, produced the project #FatalAttraction. The investigation details the human cost of Australia’s mining practices in Africa. The research effort is the largest “data-driven transnational investigation yet in Africa.” Reporters from thirteen different countries participated, as well as editors from three different continents. Additionally, forensic technology teams in the United States and South Africa participated as well. The information from the investigation was then published in a variety of global publications—a very different result than what was seen in African newspapers before. The investigation also prompted corporate reviews of the mining organizations.
On a much larger scale, the wealth of information now available has transformed the average citizen’s ability to stay informed. The data is simple and free to access, which lowers the cost of entry to working with data. Arguably, this is one of the most important developments, as it encourages citizen journalism and reporting.
Program success is evaluated through a fairly simple metric. A program is considered successful if it can be replicated in another country, either on the same scale or on a different scale. The program is also considered successful if it lasts for a significant period of time.
Many of the projects discussed earlier would be considered successful because they have been replicated throughout Africa. DodgyDoctor, GotToVote, and StoryLab have all grown outside their original countries. Even the Code for Africa program has been replicated in other countries in Africa. The original Code for Africa now operates as a federation that oversees citizen labs in 9 countries and significant projects in an additional 15 countries.
Overall, it would not be remiss to consider that the projects put forth by Code for Africa, as well as the larger program itself is a success. They have educated citizens to become more responsible voters, improved journalism, served as a referendum on government programs and policies, and helped develop databases of critical information. Looking forward, it is expected that this program will continue to expand. One interesting aspect to consider would be expansion beyond the continent of Africa into other areas that would benefit from this type of accessibility.