By Linda Ngari

As a self-proclaimed data journalist, I went into the African School on Internet Governance (AfriSiG) with my resume boasting numerous intensive data journalism fellowships and workshops. However, my experience at AfriSiG called it a bluff. It exposed the fluff in my expertise and revealed a lack of depth and nuance. As one of the AfriSiG 2023 fellows, I had an eye-opening experience on a topic often left out in the practice and training of data journalism: data governance.

And while yes, I knew some elements of this from my fact-checking background, we simply focus on data governance on the basis of personal identifiable information. I would train on the impact of phishing scams by highlighting the threats of exposing emails, phone numbers, addresses to potential cons and identity theft risks. As a data journalist, I was taught how to mine data, move it into a spreadsheet, analyse and scrape it so as to visualise it into graphs and pie charts for storytelling aesthetics.

I can now perceive how this form of data journalism does the public a disservice. It is self-serving for the journalist. It is pegged on the question of how journalists can get more eyeballs on their stories, adding colour and pizzazz to non-fiction storytelling. It reduced the concept of datafication into a mere ingredient in a journalist’s plight for reach and engagement in the digital era of shorter attention spans and competing content creators. Forgetting that data governance is a pertinent issue that can inform multiple stories, even compounding human rights violations.

The focus area for AfriSiG’s 2023 cohort was on the African Union’s Data Policy Framework. The sessions helped me appreciate what my country Kenya has been doing, by constantly publishing the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) reports. These help with fact-checking statements made by politicians. For instance, as shown in a fact-check here, President William Ruto inflated the rate of unemployment in Kenya, as well as the number of Kenyans blacklisted for debt, at a Chatham House speech. Meanwhile, the Kenya Demographic Health Survey would help me find out how former President Uhuru Kenyatta lied about the achievements of his maternal health care programme, as demonstrated in a fact-check here.

Data should be publicly available for transparency and accountability. Having met citizens from various parts of Africa, I appreciated that most African countries lack similar publicly available data. Countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Libya and Ethiopia have their latest census dating as far back as 15 years ago. Data journalism should be able to question such data gaps and what it means for various aspects such as urban planning and distribution of public resources.

There’s more that data journalism should cover.

The holy grail that is big tech data

With about three billion users globally, Facebook is anecdotally the most populated country in the world. A platform that brings people together to connect, express themselves and even get jobs without the limitations of geographical location. It has more people than the population of India and China combined. The law of the landless Republic of Facebook being Facebook’s terms and conditions.

How can we reclaim agency over our data online? Big tech companies like Facebook’s parent company Meta, Amazon, Google and Microsoft are leading in artificial intelligence innovations because they have tonnes of users’ data to tailor their algorithms. About three billion people have keyed in information such as their birthdays, location, workplace, high schools, to the most personal details like pet names and close relatives.

However, these companies have made it very difficult for researchers to access, acquire and even know how this information is used.

Journalists should be able to use their platforms to question the use and abuse of data by big tech.

Journalists can also probe the concept of internet intermediary liability, which questions social media platforms and telecommunication platforms for the content they allow on their platforms.

Could there be a future where Africa, like the EU as a bloc, harmonises data flows?

More progressive economic regions like the EU have been able to take on big tech by presenting a united front.

However, AfriSiG fellows in research and academia would note that it is hard enough to come from Uganda and access data from Rwanda, for instance. Most African economies operate in silos, if not entirely in contempt against each other. Visa costs and processes just to travel from one African country to another are already discouraging. Such is not the case in the EU.

Equipped with knowledge about data governance, journalists can also question the introduction of digital cards, which require re-entry of personal information. Kenyans, for instance, are well on their way to register their details for a second round of digital cards under the new regime. This one is called Maisha Number, after former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Huduma Number. What can these “new generation cards” do that good old IDs can’t?

Understanding internet governance issues is also important if journalists in Africa are to hold power accountable. Internet governance is not just about distributing laptops in schools and launching Wi-Fi hotspots. Further, the metric often used to demonstrate internet access, in Kenya for instance, is internet penetration. But penetration does not mean usage. It does not account for affordability, and forgets about the millions whose areas the internet may have reached but who are not connected for one reason or another.

How can the responsibility of internet governance be delegated to authoritarian African governments that have been notorious for imposing internet shutdowns? Who holds liability and responsibility while maintaining freedoms like the freedom of expression?

Going forward, I hope to redefine data journalism. As a trainer on matters of digital literacy and fact-checking, I look forward to incorporating data governance issues in my training. To breaking down the concept of datafication and data flows. While I still hold dearly the title “Data Journalist”, I want to tell stories of human and gender rights violations emanating from data breaches. This includes stories of women’s phones and devices being cloned by their lovers, which is not covered under the Kenyan data protection laws. In a world where the future of work is dominated by remote jobs whose work flow is purely online, I will be looking into work conditions in the internet space. Since the internet is a space characterised by rapid changes, I also hope to flag policy loopholes in existing frameworks such as the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms and its relevance on lived experiences.

Linda Ngari is a skilled open-source intelligence (OSINT) specialist, experienced as a fact-checker and fact-checking editor. She has a grasp of misinformation and disinformation trends in Africa, traversing a variety of topics such as climate change disinformation, elections misinformation, health and financial scams. She currently works at Africa Uncensored, based in Kenya.

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