ICFJ Knight Fellow Stephen Abbott Pugh on Access to Information, New Technology
Originally from the United Kingdom, Abbott Pugh moved to Rwanda in 2014 where he saw an opportunity to make a difference, launching an information access website for ordinary citizens to request government documents. As an engagement fellow with ICFJ, Abbott Pugh will help Code for Africa, ICFJ Fellows and their media partners to bring new voices into news and amplify their impact.
Q: What experience do you have with journalism development and digital strategy?
A: I started off as a local newspaper journalist, then I moved to the Guardian, and I was there for about seven years. The whole place massively transformed in that time. I was part of a team called the executive production team that did a lot of long-term editorial planning. When the World Cup was happening or when we were working on the Wikileaks project, we were the team in charge of outreach.
We worked with Tweetdeck, Storify, and a lot of new tools that we thought would be useful for our journalists. I was mainly focused on projects involving culture, audience engagement and social media. For example, I took a team over to South by Southwest to see how we could use mobile phones and online tools to reimagine live coverage. It was fascinating work.
Q: The transition from journalism to government work must have been interesting. What did you do?
A: My job there was to look at Parliament’s website and update some of that information, making sure that users could find their way around it and find what they were looking for. I was also part of an open Parliament project; I talked to the Open Government Partnership meeting that happened in London. I was very keen on finding ways to work with the wider community of politics, civic engagement and civic technology.
Q: What brought you to Rwanda in 2014?
A: My wife’s job took us here; she works for the Department for International Development. I started up a civic technology company called Tumenye, and our first project was to launch a website called Sobanukirwa.ru, which is an access to information website. We thought that, because I knew people internationally and because my partner Claude Migisha was familiar with everyone in Rwanda, we should put the two things together to try and generate some civic technology interest. There’s a lot of people here who have technical skills and need jobs, so there’s a nice sweet spot where we thought we could help people out.
Q: What about Rwanda's open access laws prompted you to launch Sobanukirwa.ru?
A: Rwanda passed an access to information law in 2013. It’s a fantastic law; it requires people to produce information that’s not currently made public, and for them to produce it in three days. It’s the fastest law I’ve found in the world; three days is a very swift target, but it seemed like there wasn’t much awareness of the law. There was a misconception that the law was only for journalists, and we saw an opportunity there.
We consulted with the government and found they weren't doing anything with a website. We thought it would be a great opportunity to start a conversation about how a little bit more openness and a willingness to give out information can be really useful for people. It can help businesses to flourish when they understand what opportunities exist, and it can help keep things more up-to-date.
Q: It seems like access to information is a common theme in your work.
A: A lot of my work has been looking at the best ways to get information to people. At the Guardian, it was mainly news. At Parliament, I realized a huge amount of public information couldn’t be found by as many people as it should have been. Here in Rwanda, there’s a lot of information being produced in ways that people can’t get a hold of it or just isn’t made available.
Q: What challenges do you anticipate encountering while working with the Knight team?
A: Logistically, we’re all based in different locations. We have to do a lot of coordination across Skype and Google Docs; luckily, the Internet’s getting a lot better in the countries we’re working in, so that’s incredibly useful.
I’ll be doing a lot of travel with Chris Roper, who will be the data editor of the ICFJ/Code for Africa program, to visit all these locations, talk to media groups, back up the Fellows doing work in those countries and show that they’re part of a bigger program.
It’s going to be a challenge to juggle the programs, but there’s some fantastic work being done. There’s the GotToVote system in Kenya developed by David Lemayian, the lead technologist for Code for Africa there, which was developed in a couple of days. It’s a simple SMS system so people can find out where to vote and whether they’re registered to vote. That’s gone on to be used in three or four other countries, so part of our challenge is figuring out what to build that will be useful in all of the countries that we’re working in.
Q: What do you see as Code for Africa’s potential in the region?
A: There’s a huge amount of health data being produced about Africa, but there are huge challenges in reaching audiences. The latest figures from the World Bank show that 95% of people in Tanzania are offline, 62% of people in Nigeria, 61% of Kenyans, and 51% of South Africans. There’s a huge population in these countries that aren’t online, but in a lot of cases, they have mobile phones. In Kenya, there’s about 72 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people. In Nigeria, that goes up to 73.
We want to reach out to media all across Africa that are lacking in technology skills or funding, but are really keen to do work using new technologies. We want to be the people who can help them put everything together, create the tools that will try something new or that can reach their audiences in a new way. Ultimately, we want to hand over responsibility for some of these tools to them, to build stronger media businesses in the future. We’re connecting people with developer communities and technologists, and we’ll be doing a lot of community events so people can do more work like this.
In the next couple of years, [media groups] could build up a huge database of mobile phone numbers and contacts. If there was a health emergency in the future, it would be a useful resource for someone in Kenya or Nigeria to instantly send verified, up-to-date, proven information to all of their readers.
Image courtesy of Stephen Abbott Pugh.