“When information was scarce, most of our efforts were devoted to hunting and gathering. Now that information is abundant, processing is more important,” said precision journalism expert, Philip Meyer, as quoted in The Data Journalism Handbook.
Every minute, the world generates an enormous amount of information that, in its abstract form, lacks meaning. The importance of data journalism lies in creating that meaning, finding links, and explicating that raw data to the public.
Open-source data services and the flood of statistics worldwide has provided journalists with a new source for interesting stories that can contribute to uncovering societal differences, as well as highlighting political and economic marginalization and injustice. They can also provide the audience with fresh, attractive approaches to policy and development debates.
Recently, journalists in the Arab world have been paying more attention to the opportunities offered by data. Yet, initiatives to provide data-based content remain very limited, compared to the growing trends in Europe, Africa, and Latin America.
What is impeding the adoption of this modern trend by the Arab press? And what are the requirements of the Arab media to take advantage of the enormous potential of the data revolution? These questions, and others, were addressed by 20 journalists and experts from 10 countries in the Arab world, Europe, and the United States, in a focus group organized by the Arab Development Portal and Raseef22.
Held on March 30, 2017 in Beirut, the workshop included representatives of the most prominent initiatives in the field of data journalism in the region today; Visualizing Palestine, Inkyfada (Tunisia), Al Jazeera Labs, 7iber (Jordan), Infotimes, Bayanat Box, Mada Masr, Violations Documentation Center in Syria, the Arab Institute for Training and Research in Statistics, and Data Aurora. It was also attended by data journalism experts from The Guardian, Statista (an online statistics, market research and business intelligence portal in Germany), Dağ Medya (Turkey), and Internews.
What is Hampering the Growth of Data Journalism in the Region?
The answer to this question begins by answering two other questions: do we have data?, and what kind of data is available?
Today, media professionals are finding it difficult to access data in the Arab world.
It was precisely this issue that inspired the establishment of the Arab Development Portal, an initiative of the United Nations Development Program to facilitate access to data and resources on development issues in the Arab world.The portal now contains a database of more than 2,000 indicators from data collected by national statistical offices and international organizations.
Farah Choucair, the project coordinator, pointed to the need for Arab countries to present official data, as most users resort to international data due to the lack of governmental information. She added that, even when data is available, it is difficult to access for two reasons; it may not be available to the public online, or it is issued in a way that does not facilitate interaction, such as PDFs, for instance. She emphasized the need to facilitate access to official data, as a first step toward promoting a non-elitist statistical culture and contributing to the creation of a broad base of users who are able to use and challenge figures.
Lina Ejeilat, Executive Director of 7iber, concurred, adding that they have access to reports that include data, but not the raw data itself.
Inkyfada journalist Kais Zriba highlighted another issue with data provided by government statistical centres, whereby he questioned the degree to which this data can be considered trustworthy. He pointed out that Inkyfada, a Tunisian website that provides data-driven journalism, previously encountered conflicting figures issued by the authorities.
However, Eva Constantaras, an investigative data journalist with Internews, which specializes in evolving data journalism in developing countries, rejected the notion that the problem is limited to the availability of data. She noted that the problem also lies with the people responsible for data collection, and the journalists responsible for processing it. She further pointed to the limited human resources in press organizations.
Data journalism requires skills to manage the vast amount of data, as well as the ability to analyze and interpret it and extract new approaches to surrounding events, in order to present it in the most appropriate way. Until now, this has not been addressed by the schools of journalism in the Arab world, having yet to be incorporated into the various university syllabi.
Though data journalism has been taking off internationally, the Arab world still lags behind. What are the setbacks?
As the abundance of data continues to grow, it determines the future of journalism.
Moreover, limitations in terms of human resources are not contingent on the availability of professional journalists. While newsrooms were previously occupied largely by journalists, this is not the case today. Journalists work side-by-side with programmers, designers and data analysts to produce one report, said Alaa Batayneh of Al Jazeera Labs, citing the lack of integrated work teams specializing in data journalism in the Arab media, with few exceptions, including Al Jazeera and Inkyfada.
This is mainly due to the high cost of producing data journalism materials, which requires the participation of a group of people with different skill-sets, amid the limited funding and financial crises faced by the Arab media.
In addition, there is little attention to modern journalism tools in the Arab media, as it continues to rely on text. Moreover, there is a lack of data-processing tools that support the Arabic language, according to Omar al-Iraqi, the co-founder of Infotimes, which specializes in data journalism in Egypt.
Al-Iraqi highlighted the importance of tools throughout the production of data journalism, especially in the process of saving time and resources. While many of the tools for visual presentation are available in open-source programs, using them in Arabic comes with many problems, amid an almost complete lack of initiatives addressing the issue.
Participants in the session highlighted various effective practices from their own experiences with data journalism. While many focused on the importance of written content above all, Alaa Batayneh pointed out that data journalism cannot be separated from data visualization and the means used to deliver content to the public.
The discussions focused on the process of producing data journalism content, how raw data can be converted into engaging visual stories, best practices for workflow management, how to create a team, data journalism techniques and tools, and the training needed.
Eva Constantaras of Internews advised attendees to avoid squandering efforts, by starting with simple data sets and gradually developing them. She further recommended starting with the data that is available, moreover suggesting that starting with the question, not the data, is a more appropriate approach. She further urged journalists to prioritize the story, not how it is presented, and recommended asking for help from specialists.
The discussions moreover delved into the relationship with the public and the impact of data journalism on today's readers, in a world that depends heavily on images, in addition to the pros and cons of increasing dependence on social media platforms.
Social media coordinator at Raseef22, Abir Ghattas, suggested exploiting data to produce attractive visual content that stimulates social media users and helps build an audience. She noted that this model was successfully adopted by Bayanat box, which relies primarily on providing interesting data-based visual materials through social media.
One of the suggestions made when discussing data journalism is to "avoid over-precision”. While it is crucial to provide accurate graphs, there is no problem in rounding up and down or using approximation, and even omitting some data, as long as the audience can grasp the main objective.
Moreover, it is crucial to avoid presenting excessive data, and to highlight the most important idea that should be conveyed, even if it means omitting some information that may seem important at first glance.
Here, Mona Shalaby, a journalist working for The Guardian’s Data Blog, focuses on the importance of presenting straightforward ideas that reflect the needs of the reader. "We have to provide data that allows people to learn something in the story we tell," she added.
Mona Shalaby's work is a model of how data journalism can be used to approach any subject, starting with the number of times Internet users have searched for the phrase "Will I die alone?" to the places where people most frequently die. Without getting too bogged down with ratios and numbers, data journalists can ensure that the general idea reaches the viewer in an engaging manner.
Requirements and Recommendations
During the focus group, participants emphasized the importance of developing data journalism in the region by investing in enhanced data access, through strengthening the relationship with data producers and supporting data portals, as well as developing open-source data visualization tools specifically designed for Arabic content.
Constantaras pointed to the importance of introducing local assessments of how to integrate and develop data journalism in each country separately.
Abir Ghattas and Alia al-Ali both indicated that journalists should be supported in terms of data analysis, since journalists cannot act as economists or policymakers.
Omar al-Iraqi further highlighted the importance of networking and exchanging experiences between agencies working in the field of data journalism in the Arab world, as well as supporting Arabic content that promotes this trend and setting up press awards in the region to encourage data use.
Most importantly, however, the attendees were in consensus over the importance of providing training and capacity-building opportunities in various areas of data journalism. Although some initiatives find their way into the Arab world, they remain unable to introduce qualitative leaps because they are brief and do not ensure proper follow-up.
Data journalism cannot be learned in a week or two, and building a sustainable data-processing section requires intensive training. Internews' internship program for data journalism, for example, includes 200 hours of training, held at the organization’s headquarters, followed by a six-month period of guidance and follow up.
The Arab world can no longer ignore the importance of using data today, whether in the press or the media, or as an essential tool in advocacy and support for change. As David Luche of Statista put it, data journalism “is a digital genre in every sense of the word, and as it develops, data journalism will be part of the future.”