Data “Boot Camp” Helps Kenyan Reporter Expose School Sanitation Woes

Dec 62012

Irene Choge arrived at the data boot camp with little experience using spreadsheets. But the reporter for NTV in Kenya knew that learning how to use data could help her nail down an important story: why girls in rural school districts started performing badly as they reached adolescence.

NTV reporter Irene Choge used Kenyan government data - and skills acquired at a data bootcamp - to show how a dearth of toilets in certain school districts results in high dropout rates and low performance, especially among girls.

Several weeks after the boot camp led by Knight International Journalism Fellow Justin Arenstein, Choge produced a story for NTV showing that a lack of toilets in those districts was causing students, especially girls, to drop out of school or to attend so sporadically that their performance plummeted.

A mobile phone application developed by Choge’s news organization allows Kenyan parents to send a simple text message to find out how sanitation in their children's schools compares to others in the country and to demand action from officials. And officials are responding, with promises to install facilities in the worst schools.

“The boot camps opened my eyes to the story," said Choge, who now has a regular five-minute weekly health report on NTV.

Data boot camps are one of many tools used by Arenstein in his Knight Fellowship to promote digital innovation across Africa. Arenstein, of South Africa, is the digital strategist for his fellowship partner organization, the African Media Initiative, based in Nairobi. He also set up an organization, Open Institute, which seeds digital innovation in Kenyan media. Arenstein’s fellowship is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

More than 40 journalists, technologists and visual artists attend each data boot camp. Arenstein and his co-trainers teach the journalists how to use spreadsheets, then solicit ideas from participants for projects. They choose the most promising projects and divide participants into teams to work on them.

Choge proposed investigating the high dropout rates for girls as they reached puberty. When she had asked education officials about the problem, they blamed cholera or other health problems. But the data – and common sense – didn't back that explanation up. Why would only girls be affected by cholera?

The boot camp showed Choge and her teammates how to overlay the data she had found – dropout rates for girls – against other data sets that the trainers helped her find. When she compared the dropout rates to data on toilet facilities at schools, she found the answer. Wherever the toilet per student ratio was low (in many cases, there were no toilets at all), the dropout rate for girls was high.

Then Choge's journalism instincts took over. With a reporting grant from Internews, she took an NTV camera crew into the field to interview students, villagers, health workers and education officials. The interviews confirmed what the data had shown and added context. Girls at schools with few or no toilets tended to drop out or attend sporadically when they started menstruating. Another factor: Girls in the affected schools often had to go into the bush to relieve themselves, an option that in itself posed a health risk.

Choge's story illustrates a point that Arenstein makes whenever he talks about data journalism. Data itself is not enough. Good reporters still need to use the basic tools of quality journalism: revealing interviews, compelling images, skillful storytelling.

“Choge used digital tools to crunch masses of data and uncover hidden trends that would otherwise have been impenetrable,” said Arenstein. “She then used data visualization to tell the story in a compelling but simple way that everyone could understand.”

Choge's story is one of many to come out of the boot camp. A new "county scorecard" website enables citizens to compare their county's performance to that of other counties on a host of criteria, from health to education to employment. Another project is an online map that shows the worst spots in Nairobi for fatal traffic accidents.

The boot camps also show participants how to add a new level of community engagement to their stories.

Another program developed by Arenstein and Open Institute called Code4Kenya has placed technology fellows into Kenyan newsrooms. The fellow at the Nation Media Group is adapting the app developed for Choge's story so that it can be used in many stories to engage readers and viewers and to connect them to one another and to public officials.

As a result of Choge's story, education officials promised to prioritize the worst schools – as shown by Choge’s data – for new toilets. A charitable organization has donated sanitary pads to schools with the greatest dropout problems. Choge intends to do a follow up story looking at whether new facilities really are being built.

“My greatest benefit is that I can now look at numbers and see a story," she said. "Using the numbers, I can tell simple, powerful stories.”

Program Director Jerri Eddings contributed to this story.