By Kemiso Wessie: Data journalism can be a powerful tool for African journalists, helping them uncover stories that would otherwise go unnoticed and tell stories in a more visual and engaging way. However, data journalism is still not widely utilised in Africa – and journalism schools should be stepping up to improve students’ skills. Apart from anything else, it will make them more employable. We spoke to Laura Grant of Media Hack Collective.

Data-driven investigations in Africa often involve the collaboration between data journalists and investigative reporters. Grant highlights the example of South Africa, where data scientists assisted investigative journalists in analysing the Gupta Leaks, a collection of emails that exposed state capture and corruption. However, specific examples of such collaborations in other African countries remain scarce. This indicates that there is ample room for growth and development in the field of data journalism across the continent.

Access to tools and data sources is crucial for journalists to better engage with data journalism. Grant mentions that spreadsheet software such as Excel, Google Sheets and Libre Office are readily available and serves as a fundamental tool for working with data. Additionally, there are free options like Datawrapper and Flourish for visualisations and maps. Programming languages like R and Python are also popular among data journalists and offer free online courses for learning and upskilling. Grant says, “There are many tools available for journalists in Africa. [They] just need to decide what they want to be able to do and make the effort to learn how to use them. 

When it comes to data sources, availability varies depending on the topic at hand. Often, easily accessible data “isn’t the kind that makes a good story,” adds Grant. She emphasises that journalists must be willing to search for relevant and reliable datasets that can enhance their reporting. In this context, data centres dedicated to data journalism can play a significant role by providing support and guidance to journalists working on data projects. For many newsrooms with limited resources, having access to expert advice and technical support can be invaluable.

“Data journalism isn’t just about using figures in your journalism, although understanding numbers is a huge benefit,” advises Grant. Although many journalists tend to shy away from data due to a perceived lack of mathematical skills, the ability to problem-solve is also a very useful skill for a data journalist. Being able to work with and create data sets allows journalists to add evidence to back up and add context to their stories. Data-driven reporting is valuable. It allows for the simplification of complex information, visualising data and making it more accessible to readers and enabling a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.

To ensure the future of data-driven reporting in Africa, journalism schools must integrate data journalism into their curricula. Grant suggests starting with the basics, teaching students essential data skills such as working with spreadsheets, identifying reliable data sets, and using basic statistics and data visualisation techniques. Equipping journalists with these skills will enable them to analyse and interpret data effectively, adding depth and credibility to their reporting.

Grant adds that all journalists would benefit from having some basic data skills, giving them an advantage over journalists who aren’t able to used data as a source for stories. She highlights that there is currently a shortage of professionals comfortable with working with data and incorporating data journalism into journalism education can give graduates a unique advantage in the job market.

The challenges associated with the rapid growth of new technologies in media should not be overlooked. Journalists and newsrooms need to continuously adapt and harness these technologies effectively. However, technological advancements have greatly influenced data journalism, particularly for experienced data journalists including Grant who has been data journalist in South Africa for over 20 years.

Data journalism originated as computer-assisted journalism, therefore embracing technology is an integral part of the practice. Grant adds that while not all data journalists possess the same skill set, keeping up with advancements allows for greater efficiency and opens up new possibilities in data analysis and visualisation.

Despite its potential, data journalism is still not widely embraced in Africa. Grant suggests that this might be due to the resource constraints faced by many newsrooms in the region. Building data capacity requires skilled professionals, which are currently in short supply. Newsroom managers need to recognise the importance of allocating resources to building data capacity in their newsrooms.

The benefits of this include:

  • Better quality of reporting as it will be more evidence-based.
  • More interesting story formats using visualisations as opposed to text and pictures.
  • The ability to work with complicated data. For example the Panama Papers.