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Crooked officials should fear open-data journalism

It’s no secret that traditional newsrooms are hurting. But a new kind of journalism is rising — the open data movement.

Jeanne Bourgault of Internews has a story in Wired about a practice that’s reshaping the news.

Professional journalists, amateurs, and civil society groups are now crowdsourcing stories, and using the power of data and graphics in new and powerful ways.

In Brazil, Bourgault said, is creating a cross-border map of environmental degradation. Using local reports, satallite data, and other non-proprietary sources, the project ‘discovered a 220% rise in the rate of deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil compared to the previous year,’ Bourgault said.

A project In Kenya funded by USAID and led by Internews ‘created dozens of interactive graphics exploring Kenya’s most serious health issues and offered it to media outlets for free,’ Bourgault said. ‘Using these visualizations, Kenyan journalists have written stories on topics such as the exodus of much-needed doctors to other countries, and how counterfeit drugs are hindering the fight against malaria.’

In Afghanistan, media sources mapped attacks against journalists. In Mexico, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists are doing the same thing.

‘Many data projects [in Latin America and Africa] arise from concerns about global corruption and impunity,’ Bourgault said.

How about mapping public works awards, power outages, money outflows, unsafe roads, hospital performance, land takings, and so on? Among other things, they’ll indicate patterns of inept leadership and corrupt management.

Tools available now include open-source data collection kits and apps for data scraping and cleaning. Resources from Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap allow journalists to create ‘data-driven visualizations.’

The obstacles? Bourgault said governments, corporations, and NGOs aren’t always happy to share data. And people with both journalism and technical skills have to be found and plugged into the time-consuming projects.

Bourgault concludes that while promising, the future of open-data journalism isn’t assured. It will depend ultimately on attracting an audience and advertisers.

‘However,’ she said, ‘it is heartening to see the kinds of innovative projects that are emerging from the open data movement. Data-driven journalism is opening windows onto previously dark corners and giving people the information they need to understand and take action on the issues they care about. If journalism is to remain relevant and viable, its practitioners would do well to explore and expand the use of new data technologies while keeping this fundamental goal in mind.’

Jeanne Bourgault’s ‘How the Global Open Data Movement is Transforming Journalism’ is here.


Richard L. Cassin is the Publisher and Editor of the FCPA Blog. He can be contacted here.

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