Case study interview: Winnie Kamau, Kenyan data journalist. President of the Association of Freelance Journalists – Friday 9th March 2018

Winnie Kamau loves data. She is a Kenyan journalist who specialises in data visualisation, covering social, political and development stories.

Winnie is a member and President of the Network of Freelance Journalists. They are a network of reporters that advocate for the use of data to drive factual, evidence-based journalism.

In order to tell a data-driven story, Winnie tries to gather data from a number of sources and then triangulate it to check for inconsistencies or gaps. She will speak to anyone involved in the story and mine the Kenya’s National Bureau of Statistics and the relatively recent Open Data Portal, as well as organisational websites for information.

This isn’t always easy: “Formats are a challenge. What drives me crazy is PDFs! Yes, there is software to convert the data but you might end up getting the wrong information out to people.”

Another issue is how to present the data once you have it: “Visualisation software is hard to buy. It is costly and can be difficult to use. Also, it’s not every day that you have quantitative data to visualise. That means you don’t always get a good return on investment.”

In terms of open data and transparency, Kenya is doing well compared to other countries. The Open Data Portal and National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) are both good tools to find information – although the KNBS does not have user-friendly formats.

Winnie gives an example of the the Sierra Leone Open Elections Data Portal (SLOEDP) as an example of the differences in access to information between the two countries. They found that the National Election Commission was not releasing data about the candidates.

“We (the Association of Freelance Journalists) wrote a story on this and they released the data – but less than 24-hours before the elections. In Kenya that is unheard of. People do demand the data. The Right to Information law is active. This is useful for us.”

There is a growing body of journalists in the region that are demanding and using data in order to tell stories. The Daily Nation has the NewsPlex section, featuring infographics on all sorts of topics. There is a group of independent journalists reporting on health issues. The Association of Freelance Journalists runs the online publication Talk Africa, reporting on development issues and human-interest stories. We are also a movement that sensitises and gets journalists from Africa to have that data conversation.

Even in Kenya, though, the government has not fully educated everyone about open data tools yet. Things have stalled since 2013 / 2014 and even the Open Data Portal is taking a while to upload new datasets. Winnie isn’t entirely sure why this is but she does say that “the government has priorities and data isn’t necessarily at the forefront. Although some departments are at the forefront, for example, the Department of Agriculture are making sure that data works for the farmers”.

In terms of development data specifically, Winnie does use IATI data but what she finds “is that you can’t download it into user friendly formats for me – the layman”. She is glad to hear that the D-Portal has been made in a way that user-friendly formats are available because she had previously abandoned IATI because of that issue.

“I would want to use development data such as on schools, education, health. I would use it for accountability. I was trying to work on a project with World Vision to trace a grant all the way down to see if a grant given out had an impact to people and communities it intended to help. That required going to the place the grant was intended for and seeing if this matches with what is on IATI”.

Winnie is mainly interested in writing about interactions between the Government of Kenya and NGOs delivering projects. If there was one type of information she could have better access to, it would be:

“More financial information about projects and the impact. This is hard to find at the moment, especially on IATI. You have to look in the DFID Tracker just to try and track the information about monies that have been given to Kenya. It’s hard to even see which organisations have been mandated to distribute the money”.