If data is the answer, what are the African questions?

Having learnt from years of extolling “technological revolution,” isn’t it time we ask the right question(s) about data in Africa?

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook logos. Image credit Shop Catalog via Flickr.

The Cambridge Analytica’s scandal flagged the operations of data-driven corporations in Africa, made us data-aware, but paranoid over the potential impact of data mining activities in the continent.

We learnt that Cambridge Analytica might have influenced Kenyan and Nigerian elections through its dubious data harvesting activities on Facebook. The debate still rages about the firm’s operations in Africa, with some scholars and analysts downplaying its impact on elections owing to the fact that use of social media is still generally low in African countries.

Indeed being a late bloomer in technological uptakes, Africa’s complex political and socio-economic challenges make it a common victim of rhetorical hyperbole. The developments of the past 18 years — internet and mobile “revolutions” as well as the Arab Spring — showed the extent to which the imagined power of information technologies could be made an answer to poverty, political repression, conflicts, corruption or lack of clean water and proper healthcare. This is not to say some of our expectations of the technological changes of the 2000s have not been met – one only needs to conduct a case study of mobile money services in an East African village to find evidence of some positive change, however small.

Currently, there seems to be hype over “Africa’s data revolution” among policy-makers, journalists, civil society organizations, governments and even the African Union. Yet a few lessons we have learnt of the so-called technological “revolutions” in the continent have taught us we run the risk of being captive to a strong — mostly Western — rhetoric about new developments in the continent. Like the ICTs or mobile telephony in the 2000s, data-driven approaches and solutions have been spoken about in very techno-deterministic terms. Perhaps in the same way we interrogated the supposed technological “revolution” of the 2000s, we should ask, if the answer is data, what’s the question?

The growth of data-driven projects in Africa since at least 2012 is remarkable, going by the level of online visibility of operations such as fact-checking, boot camps for data analysts, conferences or awards for practitioners running data-driven projects. The case of big data solutions as applied to journalism is particularly interesting. Data journalism has spawned different strategies of transforming journalism’s mission of truth-telling with new forms of news production and strategies such as data storytelling and use of visualizations as complementary to traditional text and images.

Globally, the growth of data journalism organizations is associated with the decline of news media, democratization processes that call for more accountability of news journalism, growing accessibility to the internet, improving press freedom and the rise of political misinformation or “fake news”. Further, in news journalism across the globe today, there has been a notable shift towards entrepreneurial journalism or news production by International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs).

Currently in Africa, data-driven projects within traditional news media organizations are limited. Instead non-profit organizations have taken up technological and data-driven approaches meant to promote and enhance traditional journalism in a range of ways, including training of traditional journalists and data story-telling on mainstream news media. These non-profits include Code for Africa, which is perhaps the largest civic tech organization involved in data-driven projects in the continent. Started in 2012, the organization has branches and partnerships with civic and tech organizations in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. Africa Check, a fact-checking organization has been particularly visible on social media, often debunking popular myths especially those appearing on the news in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. An off-shoot of Code for Africa, Open Up, on its part has focused on data literacy and journalists’ training projects. The operations of these data-driven organizations entail interaction between traditional news media organizations, journalists and developers, data evangelists, data scientists among other data/tech experts. One reason for the rise of the non-profits is the changing data environment in Africa.

Most governments are still opaque, as the Open Data Barometer shows, while few have attempted to enact or enforce the freedom/right of information. According to Code for Africa’s website, “government data (in Africa) is often incomplete or skewed” while some data such as census reports in Nigeria often remain too controversial to be trusted. However, new developments such as the establishment of open government portals (for example the one by the Kenyan government), the digitization of government/public records and the signing of the Open Government Declaration in 2011 by 11 African governments give a flicker of hope to the success of an open data movement in Africa.

The non-profits in Africa see data journalism as one way to improve investigative journalism, through mobilizing citizens to boost efforts of mainstream news organizations in finding and processing data used in verifying stories about corruption or quackery. Integrating citizens in data processes, news production and data projects meant to promote public accountability is catching on. One of the successful projects that have earned praise is Code for Africa’s Dodgy Doctors – a project that involved creating Kenya’s first-ever database of licensed doctors in partnership with the Star newspaper. The database helped the public and state agencies to identify quacks, responsible for wrong diagnoses, fake drugs and even rape of their patients.

Can data then change journalism in Africa, one would ask? Perhaps more academic studies would be useful to interrogate the impact of the growing data journalism projects in the continent (scholars have done little in this area so far). However, judging by the visibility of data-driven projects currently, there seems to be a data-centric approach to journalism. Yet there are still questions about internet access and data literacy (skills to make use of technologies to collect, interpret and make use of the data).

In the continent, data literacy is still low meaning a small proportion, even of the most educated in technological sectors, do not have proper knowledge to find usable data or skills to make sense of various forms of publicly available data. Further, Africa faces a huge “data divide” (basically, the gap between those who can have, access and use data and those who can’t). This is demonstrated by the fact that Africa’s contribution to widely accessible data to the world is almost nil. For example, only about 2.6% of the Wikipedia articles are generated from the continent. One reason for the disparity is that Africa is at the lower end of a data imbalance that favors North America and Western Europe (like in the case of English being a dominant language online). Further, Africa still faces negativity generated by Western opinion shapers and media. Hans Rosling’s recent book, Factfulness, tells us that despite ample sources of credible data from organizations such as the United Nations, the “negative instinct” blinds policymakers, journalists and even data scientists themselves from seeing positive change in the continent. If data—and in this case big data—may not change cynical perspectives of social-economic or political issues in the continent then employing data-driven strategies in journalism practice defeats the purpose. Let’s not forget that even in pre-big data days, journalism has played a key role in exposing social injustices, human rights abuses, corruption and other crimes (see examples of this ‘impactful’ journalism’ in recent book African Muckraking – 75 Years of Investigative Journalism from Africa).

Again, there is the question whether we need to interrogate the assumptions made about the current non-profits involved in data-driven projects in Africa. Perhaps owing to the nature of the non-profits, civic goals such as advocacy and activism have largely defined their activities. It could be argued that their activist approaches towards open data movement are necessary for nations with data opaqueness or government restrictions that curtail the freedom of information. But then we could ask how independent these organizations are. The non-profits in Africa receive funding from international charities such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (they also generate revenue from small-scale commercial data projects). Western organizations have interests, and even when they are driven by a genuinely positive agenda, their civic or advocacy goals may be incompatible with realities on the ground. As Dambisa Moyo in her book, Dead Aid, showed us, 50 years of Western aid to Africa meant for numerous civic, political or humanitarian projects have promoted little or no change.

Lastly, we need to ask though whether the data-driven organizations will remain independent, whether the expertise they build will not be misused by state machinery in African states to enhance surveillance, invasion of privacy or use of data for the manipulation of the citizens or the electorate. The discourse in North America and Western Europe has shifted towards ethics and regulations of data operations of corporate organizations and governments who are seen as a threat to privacy and security online. It is apparent this “Western agenda” is catching on as the discourse in the continent today, begging the question whether we can have an “African-driven” data agenda.

Having learnt from years of extolling “technological revolution”, isn’t it time we ask the right question(s) about data in Africa?

* Digital Africa is a collection of posts exploring ‘African Media in the Digital Age,’ also the subject of an International Communication Association Preconference held at Stanford University in May 2017. The posts were compiled and edited by Toussaint Nothias, a lecturer in the Center for African Studies at Stanford University.

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