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Why aren’t the media taking part in the open data conversation?

Open data conf. Africa

In early September, hundreds of open data practitioners, civil servants, researchers, technologists and specialists in health, agriculture, governance and education gathered in Tanzania for the first Africa Open Data Conference.

But the media were largely missing except during the opening plenary by Dr. Jakaya Kikwete, the president of Tanzania.

Why has the international open data agenda not yet captured the imagination of many journalists? At its heart, the push to embrace open data is about growing new businesses, speeding up the flow of information, improving governance and accountability, saving lives and embracing innovative technologies. All topics that the media normally love to cover.

There is also an international politics angle to the agenda. At the end of September, world leaders will gather in New York for the UN General Assembly. You might have heard that they will formally agree the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) which will help guide international development efforts to 2030. But did you know that an International Open Data Charter will also be announced in New York as well as a Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data?

The Tanzania conference showcased the breadth of fields preparing themselves for a wave of change powered by open data. Farmers discussed data-driven approaches to altering the value chains of their goods; doctors imagined speedier ways of tackling epidemics; and development professionals talked about how open data could revolutionize how they plan and deliver projects.

Huge issues stand between where many countries are now with open data and where they will need to be in a few years’ time. But you could glimpse the future in the dozens of experiments on show — from Ramani Huria’s community mapping of Dar es Salaam aimed at improving flood resilience, to Code for South Africa’s work showing how open data on medicine pricing could help governments save millions when dealing with pharmaceutical companies.

All of these will generate great stories for African media in the future and the conference would have been a way to make contacts and start telling these stories ahead of anyone else.

I attended the conference with my Code for Africa team as well as three of our Open Government fellows whose work in Ghana, Rwanda and Uganda we are supporting for the next six months in partnership with Open Knowledge.

At Code for Africa, we’re excited about the possibilities that will arise from the increased availability of open data from countries across Africa. From our Dodgy Doctors project with the Star in Kenya to our GotToVote electoral SMS tools, we’ve shown how all types of information can be turned into actionable data that helps empower citizens once the data is liberated from PDFs, dusty databases or closed formats. And we are working with media partners in countries like Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda to help them take advantage of open data in their reporting.

So next year I hope to see more journalists not only attending the second Africa Open Data Conference but presenting on the ways they’ve integrated data into their reporting as well.

By Stephen Abbott-Pugh, a ICFJ Knight Fellow with Code for Africa.

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