Writers in this Data-Rich country 

I have always been inspired by a statement made by Mrs. Grace Ifill, a journalist who worked for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). She once said,  “We live in a world that is extreme, often petty argument, where we hide behind our devices to insult one another in a way that we would not face to face. Technology is fabulous but this is not what it is for, we have to harness our thinking to add to the debates around us… not to debase them.”  

This statement is such a powerful one especially at a time where technology poses several challenges when misused, yet is such a valuable resource for the media today. Mrs. Ifill’s  work will always motivate me to look beyond the challenges in my writing practice, to give my best as I seek answers to questions not easily found, as well as question more why we do the things we do.

Through intentionally writing about the effects that technology and new innovations have on the evolution of societies, it allows for writers to comprehend the extent to which they can contribute to society. By changing the approach to journalism through adapting to data journalism, the media  shows that they are doing their homework. 

There is a need for data journalists and writers in this data-rich country.

The challenge for many I presume is that at times, they think there is a certain box you must fit into before you are considered a functional writer—one who writes to earn a living or get value for work done. It is no longer necessary to wait hours before finding facts for a story. The internet opens up a whole other dimension of information flow, including news, facts, entertainment and so on. Yet here we are as writers, not knowing what to do with that kind of info bombardment. 

Having a wide level of insight and remaining open to learning and adapting to the changing media landscape is a must for any writer. By rethinking approaches to journalism in the 21st Century, a lot of journalists can become effective and relevant in their role irrespective of the diverse environments they come from.  

A beautifully stunning infographic (image: OCR / Scientific American)

Sometimes, being a writer is like standing under a beautiful and breathtaking night sky full of stars and knowing that it is possible to accurately measure their distance to earth and calculate each star’s light years. Yet when put to task, all you can do is consistently circumvent your way around explaining why the sky is so far out. Looking at a lack of equipment, no kaleidoscopes, a loss of the appreciation for sky-watching and then the dance of excuses appear to become endless.

In all fairness, many of Rwanda’s writers face a plethora of limitations, the challenge of capacity, mentorship, open dialogue, finances and other resources are a few of the things that hinder a thriving creative writing environment. The innovative, creative, technological and entrepreneurship talent is evidently present yet, so few write about these things in deeper analytical, balanced, and accurate ways. There is a need for data journalists and writers in this data-rich country. 

The internet is making this possible for content creators to form better avenues to thrive. Yet, I remain motivated to this day by values that support freedom to share information, accountability, integrity, fairness, objectivity and telling the African story with a new narrative. This is against the popular narrative of wars, hunger and poverty. 

How Data saved music (Behance.net)
Nonetheless, there are several Open Source platforms like aKoma that tells African stories as well as several social media platforms that can be used to publish stories. There is so much data that is available for journalists to use when creating content. However, there is a hesitation when it comes to using professional skills to approach these large datasets with an open mind. Even when the time, effort, skill and finances are invested into the research and information gathering process to formulate a great story, there is minimal reward in terms of revenue to sustain the writer, hence many abandon the profession for other less risky and ‘rewarding careers’. 

The advantage of working in an environment where content is seemingly recycled, is that this limitation does not prevent those who are innovative and data centred from practising their skills. The internet has broken barriers to communication and knowledge sharing and as a result, the responsibility to accurately present information in real-time, through factual analysis is an opportunity that cannot be ignored any longer. For this reason, we need to learn how to write relevant informative stories that are socially inspiring, innovative, technological and business oriented. Seeing the big picture of what data journalism has yet to offer has big rewards. 

The way is to know how to gather, filter, consolidate and visualise big data, small data, historical data from the web and transform it into stunningly beautiful facts, stories and content.

It is great that a lot of funding is focused on social change projects to alleviate poverty, the evolution of technology and the opportunities to radically change into a knowledge-based economy, however, with very little investment channeled toward breeding new or sustaining the already existing writers— these stories get thinned out. 

There is need for balance when it comes to the process of translating information from the ground into palatable bites for the public, private and civil societies with the available datasets. This is through learning how to ingest the goldmines of raw data. The way is to know how to gather, filter, consolidate and visualise big data, small data, historical data from the web and transform it into stunningly beautiful facts, stories and content.

Lots of collaborations between creatives, researchers, academics, innovators and leaders to generate rich content will create a dynamic web of thriving data ecosystems. Thus, the more information becomes easily accessible to consumers, investors, innovators, tech developers, policy makers and most importantly the general public, the more writers, particularly data journalists will contribute to solving the challenges facing the world today while critically thinking of new ways to adapt to processing the wealth of information that the Web has to offer.

Already, the readily available internet infrastructure in Rwanda makes for the easy exchange of information on various communication platforms. Social Media is accessible to everyone who has the basic know-how to post articles and facts on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube among other online sites.

We need to keep applying context specific research and data findings in the stories we tell so that all who read have the necessary options to make informed choices about their perceptions. This is from informing consumer choices, to changing perceptions as well as learning for the sake of learning. Data becomes less abstract when an ecosystem of writers who have the ability to process the vast datasets and research findings and transform it into tangible information are actively engaging their writing skills. With that said, data is such a valuable resource that is provided by technology for all readers.


More from aKoma