Empowering African journalists through data training and support
November 22, 2023
There’s a gap between classroom learning and practical application of data-driven storytelling skills. Here’s how we plan to address it.

Turning complex spreadsheets with millions of data points into powerful visualisations that tell a compelling story requires time and the application of a number of skills. It is a process that is investigative, analytic, artistic and technical; all of which are an increasingly fundamental requirement for newsrooms around the world. To learn more about these skills and how to use them, a group of 11  journalists from across southern Africa came together for a two-day workshop hosted in Johannesburg in September 2023, courtesy of OpenUp, a valued partner of Africa Data Hub.

This workshop was the second of a larger initiative to capacitate southern African journalists through a combination of face-to-face learning and longer term online support, exploring ways in which civic technologists can help reporters to bridge the gap between training sessions and becoming an experienced data practitioner.

The growing need for data training among journalists

In the realm of modern investigative journalism and storytelling, data plays an increasingly pivotal role. Journalists are tasked with fact-checking press releases, deciphering complex reports, delving into government data and analysing leaked datasets. Mastering the tools for data cleaning, analysis and communication is now an essential part of their profession. Transforming a million data points into a concise tweet or helping readers navigate intricate data to comprehend the impact of an issue has made journalism more accessible, engaging and relevant than ever before.

OpenUp has been at the forefront of providing training courses for journalists and communication professionals grappling with large and small datasets for many years. This particular training session brought together members of the IJHub network, the Association of Independent Publishers (AIP)  and other participants hailing from newsrooms in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Lesotho.  

Putting the story ahead of the data

The two-day workshop was highly interactive, with participants eager to integrate data seamlessly into their existing skill sets. Often, when teaching data-driven storytelling, the storytelling element can be overshadowed by the technical challenges of data manipulation. From the perspective of the trainers, it was a delight to work with these highly skilled professionals whose narrative expertise was finely honed.

The data storytelling pipeline: OpenUp's training approach

Central to OpenUp's data-driven storytelling training is the data processing pipeline. This approach demonstrates the use of freely available tools, like Flourish or Google Sheets, for all stages of the pipeline, including finding data, ensuring it is in machine-readable formats, verifying data, cleaning data, analysing data, and packaging and presenting stories. Practical exercises showcase techniques to expedite data acquisition and processing, and participants work on sample data to produce a final story. 

Throughout the training, examples of high quality data-driven storytelling are shared, along with best practices for integrating data tools into a journalist's daily workflow. 

Building the Data Journalism Helpdesk

One of the inherent challenges in training for a complex field like data-driven storytelling is the disconnect between the classroom experience and  real-world application. While training materials are based on real-world examples, individuals often encounter difficulties when datasets that they encounter at work vary significantly from the type and format of data provided in training. There is simply no way to capture every eventuality for the challenges that will be encountered in two days, and becoming proficient as a data wrangler can take years.

Over the next few months, OpenUp will collaborate with participants from both cohorts and other members of the Africa Data Hub partnership to develop long-term, scalable support solutions for such real-world situations. By tailoring assistance to the needs of these highly skilled journalists, the aim is to eventually make the Helpdesk available to other organisations through the Africa Data Hub training portal and online community. 

If you want to know when new opportunities to take part in training and the Data Journalism Helpdesk are available, sign up for our newsletter here.

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