Building great data tools is not enough

by Raymond Joseph
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous

“If you build it, they will come” is the classic line uttered by the character played by Kevin Costner in the 1989 hit movie “Field of Dreams.” It tells the story of an Iowa farmer who keeps hearing voices telling him to plough up his corn fields and build a baseball stadium in the middle of nowhere.

He believes that if he does so, the Chicago White Sox team will come to his arena to play. So he does, and they do.

But sadly the Hollywood fantasy-drama with a perfect outcome is worlds apart from the real-life world of tech where things don’t neatly follow a script to end on a happy note. All too often powerful, simple-to-use data tools for journalists are built and, after an initial buzz, they end up hardly being used by the very users they target.

Social media and journalism sites and communities are great in helping to get the word out, but with new tools constantly popping up, some really good ones get lost in the traffic because little or no thought is given to outreach, marketing and training of potential users.

An example of this is the powerful Siyazana influence tracker built by former Knight Fellow Friedrich Lindenberg, which connects politicians and their money and business interests. Initially it did not receive the attention it deserved, but since being included in workshops on data journalism, it has become a go-to research tool for South African political journalists and researchers.

This issue is central to the work of Code for South Africa (Code4SA) where I am currently embedded as an ICFJ Knight Journalism Fellow as part of an ICFJ/Code for Africa initiative that is using data journalism and civic engagement tools to empower Africans and improve their lives.

The organization actively engages with potential journalism users to introduce them to tools for journalists developed by Code4SA, such as Wazimap, OpenByLaws, People's Assembly and Bill Tracker.

At the same time, Code4SA pursues a “catch-them-young” strategy, working with journalism schools and offering free tools and data journalism training for their students. This has led to relationships with journalism departments at universities that, in many cases, will result in these tools being incorporated into the curriculum.

On another front, Code4SA principal technologist Greg Kempe is working with the Southern African Geography Teachers Association to introduce Wazimap as a practical teaching aid in classrooms. Wazimap, which makes elections and census data easily available to users with no tech skills, was refined and data added based directly on user feedback. Kempe is working closely with teachers to create lesson plans that enable students to use the tool for practical exercises and projects.

Kempe says the tools developed by Code4SA are designed to have impact. “That means knowing who you are targeting and communicating to them what the opportunities and possibilities are. It also means being alive to opportunities to introduce these tools in communities you never thought of. It involves incorporating user feedback as part of the development process, not as something that happens at the end when the project is over and budget has been used up.”

To achieve this it means budgeting up front to create instructional videos, and blogging and using social media and interactive sites to showcase what the tools do, he says.

“If people don’t know about the tools you develop and you’re not actively telling them why they should care, what problems it will solve for them and how it can make their lives easier, then no matter how good the tech, nothing will happen.”

Raymond Joseph is a veteran of South African newsrooms. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Andrew Carr.