Data Journalism in Kenya: Introducing Data Dredger


By Dorothy Otieno, data journalism trainer at Internews in Kenya.

Two years ago Kenya launched the Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI). It was a first for sub-Saharan Africa.

For the first time Kenyans would access and interrogate government data from their computer terminals, and cell phones. Before the release of the public data, a journalist’s or a citizen’s search for government records would be a laborious exercise that would begin with seeking a bureaucrat’s approval. If the individual was lucky enough to get the nod to access the information, he or she would be led into a dingy room to thumb through dog-eared files and publications.

But the journalism around KODI – in the weeks and months after the launch of the programme – was an anticlimax. Despite the release of this wealth of information, no in-depth stories were produced. The only stories that emerged were about the news of the launch itself.

Data journalism had not quite arrived in Kenya. 

Prompted by the realization that Kenyan journalists were not using the data available to them to write stories that would impact Kenyans in any way, Internews developed a data journalism course, offering its first training in October 2011. And it has been a fruitful journey so far. Working with the media on data journalism has helped further our organization’s mission to provide Kenyans with information that would help them make better decisions about their lives. It has also helped achieve another Internews goal: to provide Kenyan journalists with the opportunity to adopt more in-depth forms of storytelling.

One such example is business journalist John Gachiri’s story – a data-driven report on the impact of Kenya’s balance of trade on the Kenyan Shilling. What seemed like a straightforward story from a financial journalism point of view turned out to be a challenging enterprise. Gachiri spent weeks mining data made available by government bodies, such as the Kenya Revenue Authority, the Central Bank and the Coffee Board of Kenya – all in vain. Not giving up and bolstered by his new-found nose for data, Gachiri’s single-minded search led him to the Kenya Ports Authority headquarters in Mombasa. He had hit the jackpot, as he found exactly what he was looking for: data on Kenya’s imports and exports – data which even economists did not have.

“This is unbelievable. Is it from a credible source? Our exports have remained flat over the last 30 years with the highest year being 1981 when there were 2.8 million units of exports! Yet our imports have tripled,” said financial analyst and banker, Carol Musyoka, when Gachiri sought her response on the data. 

With support from Internews trainers, Gachiri wrote his story on the impact of Kenya’s balance of trade on the Shilling. What turned sweet smell of coffee farming into bitter brew was published in The Business Daily in Kenya receiving an excellent response from readers.

Gachiri's article, published in The Business Daily

As journalists developed their data driven stories work under the mentorship of Internews data journalism trainers it became apparent that they needed a platform with tools to allow them to learn to produce data stories by doing. This is what led to the establishment of Data Dredger - a space where journalists can mine data that is packaged in an user friendly manner – ready to be used in storytelling. Storytellers can also download compelling visualizations for their stories.

Data Dredger began by using data from KODI, but it also hosts data downloaded from the Kenya Demographic Health Surveys. The team also poured through musty paper files in government ministries in pursuit of data that the government had not yet released.

One of the exemplary projects in Data Dredger took place ahead of Kenya’s national general election earlier this year, when Internews in Kenya conducted an audit of the health sector to highlight challenges and examine the promises the presidential candidates and political parties were making on the provision of health services.

The exercise of examining the presidential and party manifesto data resulted in an assessment or audit, which established that it would take immense resources and many years to fulfill some of the promises the eight presidential candidates said they would implement immediately after taking over the presidency.

Internews highlighted the findings in interactive online fact files consisting of datasets, appealing visualizations and personal accounts. The audit was also presented at a media roundtable that provided tips to journalists on how to challenge presidential candidates on the promises they had made in their party manifestos and during the first presidential debate.

Internews engaged a print editor of one of the national newspapers in the process and at the roundtable he gave the journalists insights into how he had produced his four-page data driven article: Kenya decades away from achieving quality healthcare, by using the audit data. The story, published in The Standard, on the day of the roundtable was the only in-depth health story that interrogated the health promises made by politicians during the election period.

Building on the success of Politics of Health, Kenyan journalists are now warming to data journalism and are increasingly using our platform to dredge up story gems. Some more of the reporting done by Kenyan journalists can be found at the Stories in Kenyan media section of Data Dredger.