Updated September 3, 10:29 a.m. EST
Data scientist Adi Eyal is on a mission to prove that the most powerful technology is often the simplest. A self-described “techie who hates technology," Eyal is currently working to embed a corps of “data fellows” in South Africa's top newsrooms, with the end goals of improving citizens' lives and making changes in society.
“What I like is to strip away as much of the technology as possible to find the simplest solutions,” Eyal told IJNet at the recent Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires Media Party, “to find things that people can use, that are robust, cheap and very quick to work.”
Eyal is leading Code for South Africa (CfSouthAfrica), which seeks to empower ordinary citizens and public watchdogs like journalists and activists by giving them digital tools that help hold government and companies accountable. The initiative was a winner of the inaugural African News Innovation Challenge, organized by the African Media Initiative (AMI), the continent’s largest association of media owners and operators. ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Justin Arenstein manages the contest, as well as the umbrella Code for Africa initiative, for AMI.
Eyal talked with IJNet about his vision for the project and what we can expect to see out of CfSouthAfrica in the coming months. Here are some highlights:
IJNet: Can you tell me about the open data movement in South Africa?
A.E.: The movement is really in its infancy. We have little fragmented communities; we have two local chapters of Hacks/Hackers South Africa and a chapter of the Open Knowledge Foundation. There are a lot of people who think open data is cool, but few people are really doing anything with it.
Throughout history, our government has been, in general, very secretive. I think the culture of not asking or questioning, and not finding out what is going on, was handed over to the new [post-apartheid] government in 1994. So today, people are still apprehensive about making data available.
So what I think we need to do is build up demand, and build up communities to make this demand. The process [in other parts of the world] has been that government makes data available and citizens use it. In the long term, I think it will make sense to move government to open source in South Africa, but for now, my short term goal is to get people in the community used to asking for and using open data. We need to have organizations, journalists and the public requesting data from government. We need to show people that data is useful, and that you can get data from all sorts of places and mash it up and actually get a lot of intelligence from a lot of seemingly useless sources.
What is Code for South Africa?
The idea is to try to evangelize the use of data within thought-leader media organizations. Following the Code for Kenya pilot program model, data analysts/fellows will be embedded into host organizations for a period of 10 months. During that period, these fellows will be considered part of the news team, sitting side by side with journalists and attending morning news briefs. Fellows will be supported by an external citizen tech lab manned by techies and a graphic designer. This lab will provide the heavy lifting to implement some of the projects identified by the fellows.
The objective of this project is to allow news organizations to experiment with data-driven journalism without a big initial investment. After a six-month period, we hope that media will be convinced by the results and invest in developing information products and using information more often to drive their investigations and news stories.
Who are the Data Fellows? What will they do?
Data fellows will work in newsrooms but they are not journalists. They’re business analysts, data analysts, people who can “talk human” and have some experience with technology. They don’t have to be serious technologists, but they will have a general interest in the field, have some ideas, and have a passion for it. They will be responsible for identifying opportunities to improve the way news stories are found and disseminated. Typically, they may work on a data story with a journalist, produce visualizations, build APIs or develop interesting ways of consuming news.
What is an example of a project you could see taking root?
Something like: What do domestic workers earn in South Africa? Domestic workers are the most vulnerable people in society. They have no bargaining power. And there is a huge gap between what they earn. So we could create a simple technology to be able to show this information, both for domestic workers and their employers. Then we would want to make that information really public, using the media to publicize it.
Is it true that you hate technology?
I’m a techie, but I’m a Luddite. I use pencils. I think technology is too complex, and that there’s a huge digital divide between the haves and the have nots. While nearly every person in Africa has a cell phone (which is awesome), most don't even have airtime on their phones, let alone sophisticated smartphones.So when we talk about "Let’s write this app, and how can we write this IOS application, or that Android application," that’s great because you can show off, but really does it actually affect people and make a change?
With technology, we should do it as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible. It might work and it might not. If it works, let’s continue to iterate it.
My philosophy: Visualizations are great, but cool isn’t enough. What is the impact? Code fast – like really fast. No project should take more than a week. Build teams within organizations. Relationships are way cheaper to maintain than consultants. Build communities. They’re the only sustainable way to create a popular movement.
Jessica Weiss, a former IJNet managing editor, is a Buenos Aires-based freelancer.
Global media innovation coverage related to the projects and partners of the ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellows on IJNet is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and edited by Jennifer Dorroh.
Image: CC-Licensed, thanks to James Cridland on Flickr.