Translating complex data into accessible articles

Chris Addison

It sounds simple, open data is there for anyone to access. However, not all journalists are aware of the open data available to them or how to use it when writing about food security or the critical challenges facing agriculture.

Good journalism is not based on opinions, it relies on evidence-based information. Access to reliable data is important, but journalist must also understand how to interpret data. For example, Paida Kadzakumanja writes for The Nation, in Malawi. She is investigating challenges facing the country’s Farm Input Subsidy Programme, basing her stories on a range of data sources, and illustrating how access to data allows journalists to illustrate progress on government programmes rather than simply relaying opinions.

She was part of a group of journalists that attended the Open Data Training Course for Journalists from 25 until 28 July 2016. CTA co-organised this training with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Agency (NEPAD). The training on tips and tricks of open data was provided for the members of the Journalists Network of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), the continental framework for improving food security and nutrition, and increasing incomes in Africa’s largely farming-based economies.


Journalists are key partners in communicating and facilitating dialogue in agriculture, explains Augustin Wambo Yamdjeu, Head of CAADP at the NEPAD Agency. ‘The CAADP Results Framework and the indicators therein prove critical for the media to interrogate in evidence-based reporting,’ he said during the course. The Journalist Network of CAADP was launched in 2013 and aims to equip African journalists with an understanding of the broader issues and debates related to agricultural development on the continent.

Journalist are pivotal as intermediaries to translate open data into context specific and accessible information for specific audiences of end users. ‘Enhancing the capacity of journalists to research and work with open data could lead, as a ultimate goal, to a demand for data from civil society groups and farmers’ organisations to monitor progress in reaching the agreed targets of investment and production both at national and continental levels,’ says Isaura Lopes Ramos, project coordinator on open data at CTA.

The training course introduced participants to open data concepts, showed them where to find open data and demonstrated ways to use it. Journalists learned how to transform data into compelling stories, charts, maps and infographics. Like Natasha Mhango, who is Senior agricultural information officer-publications at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock of Zambia. She could improve her skills at the training course and with mentoring from the Local Development Research Institute (LDRI) she has been building on open data to write about the biggest issues in agriculture and nutrition in Zambia. She made use of open data for stories about stabilising agricultural productivity in Zambia, and stunting in children due to malnutrition.

Research-driven content

‘The sources of data I used for my articles were all online – the FAO STAT website and Zambia’s Central Statistical Office website – on which I found Zambia’s agricultural crop forecast reports,’ says Mhango. The training course helped her learn to better and critically navigate and interpret open data sources, which is important as her articles will be used by smallholder farmers to improve farming practices. ‘I often come across very bulky data, so to say. And so the workshop’s practical session on how to filter data was most useful to me, as it has now made interpretation and subsequently presentation of the data easier.’

GODAN Action : Capacity Development for data-driven journalism in Africa

An open data training course for journalists took place from 25 until 28 July 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya. The aim was to create awareness of open data among media practitioners. The training provided members of the CAADP Journalists Network with practical tips for using open data.

On completion of the training, the participants were encouraged to produce one piece of data- or research-driven content every month for six months, with LDRI’s mentorship. The content is being published by their own organisations online and offline, as well as on the website Transform Agriculture, The Network for Agricultural Transformation in Africa.    

The workshop was part of GODAN Action project on open data. CTA has helped establish a GODAN Working Group on Capacity Development for individuals and institutions interested in collaborative efforts in agricultural and nutritional open data initiatives. The working group aims to promote open data knowledge and increase awareness of ongoing open data initiatives, innovations and good practices.

Related links

CTA website – Open data workshop for data-driven journalism in Africa

Website Transform Agriculture

other articles in this issue

Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Rural and Agricultural Cooperation

CTA is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.