The 2012-2013 influenza season has been a bad one, with flu reaching epidemic levels in the United States.
The post-industrial future of journalism is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet. The same trends changing journalism and society have the potential to create significant social change throughout the African continent, as states moves from conditions of information scarcity to abundance.
That reality was clear on my recent trip to Africa, where I had the opportunity to interview Justin Arenstein at length during my visit to Zanzibar. Arenstein is building the capacity of African media to practice data-driven journalism, a task that has taken on new importance as the digital disruption that has permanently altered how we discover, read, share and participate in news.
The 2011 Knight News Challenge winners illustrated data’s ascendance in media and government, with platforms for data journalism and civic connections dominating the field.
As I wrote last September, the projects that the Knight Foundation has chosen to fund over the last two years are notable examples of working on stuff that matters: they represent collective investments in digital civic infrastructure.
The first winners of the African News Innovation Challenge, which concluded this winter, look set to extend that investment throughout the continent of Africa.
“Africa’s media face some serious challenges, and each of our winners tries to solve a real-world problem that journalists are grappling with. This includes the public’s growing concern about the manipulation and accuracy of online content, plus concerns around the security of communications and of whistleblowers or journalistic sources,” wrote Arenstein on the News Challenge blog.
While the twenty 2012 winners include investigative journalism tools and whistleblower security, there’s also a focus on citizen engagement, digitization and making public data actionable. To put it another way, the “news innovation” that’s being funded on both continents isn’t just gathering and disseminating information: it’s now generating data and putting it to work in the service of the needs of residents or the benefit of society.
“The other major theme evident in many of the 500 entries to ANIC is the realisation that the media needs better ways to engage with audiences,” wrote Arenstein. “Many of our winners try tackle this, with projects ranging from mobile apps to mobilise citizens against corruption, to improved infographics to better explain complex issues, to completely new platforms for beaming content into buses and taxis, or even using drone aircraft to get cameras to isolated communities.”
In the first half of our interview, published last year at Radar, Arenstein talked about Hacks/Hackers, and expanding the capacity of data journalism. In the second half, below, we talk about his work at African Media Initiative (AMI), the role of open source in civic media, and how an unconference model for convening people is relevant to innovation.
What have you accomplished at the AMI to date?
Justin Arenstein: The AMI has been going on for just over three years. It’s a fairly young organization, and I’ve been embedded now for about 18 months. The major deliverables and the major successes so far have been:
- A $1 million African News Innovation Challenge, which was modeled fairly closely on the Knight Challenge, but a different state of intended outputs.
- A network of Hacks/Hackers chapters across the continent.
- A number of technology support or technology development initiatives. Little pilot projects, invariably newsroom-based.
The idea is that we test ideas that are allowed to fail. We fund them in newsrooms and they’re driven by newsrooms. We match them up with technologists. We try and lower the barrier for companies to start experimenting and try and minimize risk as much as possible for them. We’ve launched a couple of slightly larger funds for helping to scale some of these ideas. We’ve just started work on a social venture or a VC fund as well.
You mentioned different outputs in the News Challenge. What does that mean?
Justin Arenstein: Africa hasn’t had the five-year kind of evolutionary growth that the Knight News Challenge has had in the U.S. What the News Challenge has done in the U.S. is effectively grown an ecosystem where newsrooms started to grapple with and accepted the reality that they have to innovate. They have to experiment. Digital is core to the way that they’re not only pushing news out but to the way that they produce it and the way that they process it.
We haven’t had any of that evolution yet in Africa. When you think about digital news in African media, they think you’re speaking about social media or a website. We’re almost right back at where the News Challenge started originally. At the moment, what we’re trying to do is raise sensitivity to the fact that there are far more efficient ways of gathering, ingesting, processing and then publishing digital content — and building tools that are specifically suited for the African environment.
There are bandwidth issues. There are issues around literacy, language use and also, in some cases, very different traditions of producing news. The output of what would be considered news in Africa might not be considered news product in some Western markets. We’re trying to develop products to deal with those gaps in the ecosystem.
What were the most promising News Challenge entrants that actually relate to those outputs?
Justin Arenstein: Some of the projects that we thought were particularly strong or apt amongst the African News Challenge finalists included more efficient or more integrated ways to manage workflow. If you look at many of the workflow software suites in the north, they’re, by African standards, completely unaffordable. As a result, there hasn’t been any systemic way that media down here produced news, which means that there’s virtually no way that they are storing and managing content for repackaging and for multi-platform publishing.
We’re looking at ways of not reinventing a CMS [content management system], but actually managing and streamlining workflow from ingesting reporting all the way to publishing.
Some of the biggest blogs in the world are running on WordPress for a CMS. Why not use that where needed?
Justin Arenstein: I think I may have I misspoken by saying “content management systems.” I’m referring to managing, gathering and storing old news, the production and the writing of new content, a three or four phase editing process, and then publishing across multiple platforms. Ingesting creative design, layout, and making packages into podcasting or radio formats, and then publishing into things like Drupal or WordPress.
There have been attempts to take existing CMS systems like Drupal and turn it into a broader, more ambitious workflow management tool. We haven’t seen very many successful ones. A lot of the kinds of media that we work with are effectively offline media, so these have been very lightweight applications.
The one thing that we have focused on is trying to “future-proof” it, to some extent, by building a lot of meta tagging and data management tools into these new products. That’s because we’re also trying to position a lot of the media partners we’re working with to be able to think about their businesses as data or content-driven businesses, as opposed to producing newspapers or manufacturing businesses. This seems to be working well in some early pilots we’ve been doing in Kenya.
What were your takeaways from the Tech Camp? Was a hybrid unconference a good model for the News Challenge?
Justin Arenstein: A big goal that we think we’ve achieved was to try and build a community of use. We put people together. We deliberately took them to an exotic location, far away from a town or location, where they’re effectively held hostage in a hotel. We built in as much free time as possible, with many opportunities to socialize, so that they start creating bonds. Right from the beginning, we did a “speed dating” kind of thing. There’s been very few presentations — in fact, there was only one PowerPoint in five days. The rest of the time, it’s actually the participants teaching each other.
We brought in some additional technology experts or facilitators, but they were handpicked largely from previous challenges to share the experience of going through a similar process and to point people to existing resources that they might not be aware of. That seems to have worked very well.
On the sidelines of the Tech Camp, we’ve seen additional collaborations happen for which people are not asking for funding. It just makes logical sense. We’ve already seen some of the initial fruits of that: three of the applicants actually partnered and merged their applications. We’ve seen a workflow editorial CMS project partner up with an ad booking and production management system, to create a more holistic suite. They’re still building as two separate teams, but they’re now sharing standards and they’re building them as modular products that could be sold as a broader product suite.
The Knight News Challenge has stimulated the creation of many open source tools. Is any of that code being re-used?
Justin Arenstein: We’ve tried to tap into quite a few of them. Some of the more recent tools are transferable. I think there was grand realization that people weren’t able to deliver on their promises — and where they did deliver on tools, there wasn’t documentation. The code was quite messy. They weren’t really robust. Often, applications were written for specific local markets or data requirements that didn’t transfer. You actually effectively had to rebuild them. We have been able to re-purpose DocumentCloud and some other tools.
I think we’ve learned from that process. What we’re trying to do with our News Challenge is to workshop finalists quite aggressively before they put in their final proposals.
Firstly, make sure that they’re being realistic, that they’re not unnecessarily building components, or wasting money and energy on building components for their project that are not unique, not revolutionary or innovative. They should try and almost “plug and play” with what already exists in the ecosystem, and then concentrate on building the new extensions, the real kind of innovations. We’re trying to improve on the Knight model.
Secondly, once the grantees actually get money, it comes in a tranche format so they agree to an implementation plan. They get cash, in fairly small grants by Knight standards. The maximum is $100,000. In addition, they get engineering or programming support from external developers that are on our payroll, working out of our labs. We’ve got a civic lab running out of Kenya and partners, such as Google.
Thirdly, they get business mentorship support from some leading commercial business consultants. These aren’t nonprofit types. These are people who are already advising some of the largest media companies in the world.
The idea is that, through that process, we’re hopefully going to arrive at a more realistic set of projects that have either sustainable revenue models and scaling plans, from the beginning, or built-in mechanisms for assessments, reporting back and learning, if they’re designed purely as experiments.
We’re not certain if it’s going to work. It’s an experiment. On the basis of the Tech Camp that we’ve gone through, it seems to have worked very well. We’ve seen people abandon what were, we thought, overly ambitious technology plans and rather matched up or partnered with existing technologists. They will still achieve their goals but do so in a more streamlined, agile manner by re-purposing existing tech.
Editors’s Note: This interview is part of an ongoing series at the O’Reilly Radar on the people, tools and techniques driving data journalism.
Pollwatch, a mobile application that enabled crowdsourced poll monitoring, has launched a final version at pollwatch.us, just in time for Election Day 2012. The initial iteration of the app was conceived, developed and demonstrated at the hackathon at the 2012 Personal Democracy Forum in New York City.
As significant as the revisions to San Francisco’s open data policy may prove to be, city officials and civic startups alike emphasize that it’s people are fundamental to sustained improvements in governance and city life.
“Open data would not exist without our community,” said Jay Nath, the city’s first chief innovation officer, this Monday at the Hatchery.
San Francisco’s approach to open innovation in the public sector — what businesses might describe as crowdsourcing, you might think of as citizensourcing for cities — involves a digital mix of hackathons, public engagement and a renewed focus on the city’s dynamic tech community, including the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, or SF.citi.
Cities have been asking their residents how government could work better for some time, of course — and residents have been telling city governments how they could work better for much longer than that. New technologies, however, have created new horizons for participatory platforms to engage citizens, including mobile apps and social media.
Open data and civic coders also represent a “new class of civic engagement focused on solving issues, not just sharing problems,” argues Nath. “We have dozens and dozens of apps in San Francisco. I think it’s such a rich community. We haven’t awarded prizes. It’s really about sustainability and creating community. We’ve six or seven events and more than 10,000 hours of civic engagement.”
San Francisco’s dedicated citizensourcing platform is called “ImproveSF.” The initiative had its genesis as an internal effort to allow employees to make government better, said Walton. The ideas that come out of both, he said, are typically about budget savings.
The explosion of social media in the past few years has created new challenges for San Francisco to take public comments digitally on Facebook or Twitter that officials haven’t fully surmounted yet.
“We don’t try to answer and have end-to-end dialog,” said Jon Walton, San Francisco’s CIO, in an interview earlier this year. Part of that choice is driven by the city’s staffing constraints.
“What’s important is that we store, archive and make comments available to policy makers so that they can see what the public input is,” he said.
Many priorities are generated by citizen ideas submitted digitally, emphasized Walton, which then can be put on a ballot that residents then vote on and become policy by public mandate.
“How do you get a more robust conversation going on with the public?” asked Walton. “In local government, what we’re trying to do is form better decisions on where we spend time and money. That means learning about other ideas and facilitating conversations.”
He pointed to the deployment of free public Wi-Fi this year as an example of how online public comments can help shape city decisions. “We had limited funds for the project,” he said. “Just $80,000. What can you do with that?”
Walton said that one of the first things they thought about doing was putting up a website to ask the public to suggest where the hotspots should be.
The city is taking that feedback into account as it plans future wifi deployments:
Sites in progress
Walton said they’re working with the mayor’s office to make the next generation of ImproveSF more public-facing.
“How do we take the same idea and expose it to the public?” he asked. “Any new ‘town hall’ should really involve the public in asking what the business of government should be? Where should sacrifices and investments be made? There’s so much energy around the annual ballot process. People haven’t really talked about expanding that. The thing that we’re focusing on is to make decision-making more interactive.”
At least some of San Francisco’s focus has gone into mobile development.
“If you look at the new social media app, we’re answering the question of ‘how do we make public meetings available to people on handhelds and tablets’?” said Walton.
“The next generation will focus on how do they not just watch a meeting but see it live, text in questions and have a dialog with policy makers about priorities, live, instead of coming in in person.”
“…armed with low-cost phones and an Internet connection, people are using civic-minded apps like ForageCity to tackle everything from public safety to potholes. The question is whether the technology will have the long-term effect that some foresee, or whether the “commons 2.0” and “participatory urbanism” will become empty marketing slogans.”
Woodal asks good questions and, as it happens, posed them to me last week in a phone interview. (I’m quoted in the article.)
Here’s a couple of thoughts that didn’t make it in. Mobile applications that civic developers are creating around the world — like ForageCity — are making it increasingly possible for more people to interact more easily and for less cost where ever and whenever they wish. That does lead to giving more power to more people to connect to one another and solve problems, or at least discuss them.
The potential for such apps to connect and, crucially, scale is particularly significant when there is a shared standard for the open government data that fuels, as with the standard for transit data (GTFS) that now exists in 450 different cities. Around the U.S., cities are slowly working with one another to define more such standards — but it’s a complicated process that doesn’t happen overnight, or even years.
The question is whether the technology will have the long-term effect that Code for America founder Jen Pahlka described to Woodall. On that count, I tend to give Pahlka — and my publisher, Tim O’Reilly — the benefit of the doubt.
As I said to the reporter, the potential for civic apps is enormous — but these the tools are only as good as the people who use them and adapt them. The tools can be quite good on their own — full stop — but many network effects will only take place with broad, mainstream adoption.
Smartphones can now be used for finding shelter, improving medical care and documenting riots — but the same devices are also used for gaming, pornography, celebrity gossip and shopping. While the apps used to find city services are generally not the ones used to surveil citizens, in practice the mobile device itself may be an agent of both actions.
Working out how to both protect the rights of citizens and empower citizens using mobile devices will be a difficult and crucial need in the years ahead.
It’s not immediately clear, at least to this observer, that state governments, Congress, regulators and law enforcement are up to the challenge, but it’s hard not to hope that they rise to the challenge.
Last month, I traveled to Moldova to speak at a “smart society” summit hosted by the Moldovan national e-government center and the World Bank. I talked about what I’ve been seeing and reporting on around the world and some broad principles for “smart government.” It was one of the first keynote talks I’ve ever given and, from what I gather, it went well: the Moldovan government asked me to give a reprise to their cabinet and prime minister the next day.
I’ve embedded the entirety of the morning session above, including my talk (which is about half an hour long). I was preceded by professor Beth Noveck, the former deputy CTO for open government at The White House. If you watch the entire program, you’ll hear from:
- Victor Bodiu, General Secretary, Government of the Republic of Moldova, National Coordinator, Governance e-Transformation Agenda
- Dona Scola, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Information Technology and Communication
- Andrew Stott, UK Transparency Board, former UK Government Director for Transparency and Digital Engagement
- Victor Bodiu, General Secretary, Government of the Republic of Moldova
- Arcadie Barbarosie, Executive Director, Institute of Public Policy, Moldova
Without planning on it, I managed to deliver a one-liner that morning that’s worth rephrasing and reiterating here: Smart government should not just serve citizens with smartphones.
I look forward to your thoughts and comments, for those of you who make it through the whole keynote.
The future of cities was a hot topic this year at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, with two different panels devoted to thinking about what’s next. I moderated one of them, on “shaping cities with mobile data.” Megan Schumann, a consultant at Deloitte, was present at both sessions and storified them. Her curatorial should gives you a sense of the zeitgeist of ideas shared.
From healthcare to finance to emergency response, data holds immense potential to help citizens and government. Putting data to work for the public good, however, will require data journalists to apply the powerful emerging tools in the newsroom stack to the explosion of information from government, business and their fellow citizens. The promise of data journalism has been a strong theme throughout the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting’s (NICAR) 2012 conference.
It was in that context that I presented upon “Open Data Journalism” this morning, which, to paraphrase Jonathan Stray, I’d define as obtaining, reporting upon, curating and publishing open data in the public interest. My slides, which broadly describe what I’m seeing in the world of open government today, are embedded below.