CodeCamp: Helping Media and Government Become Data-Driven

Jun 202014

From May 19 through 30, 2014, ICFJ brought together experts from around the world to the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center in Italy to find ways to use data to advance quality journalism. Ben Colmery helped organize this key summit.

His second report:

It is commonly believed that a properly-functioning democracy needs government to work for its citizens, and media/civil society able to foster an adequately-informed citizenry and hold government in check. Now that data has opened so many doors for them to solve real problems and truly understand people’s challenges, it just made sense to bring these different sides to our CodeCamp to see how they fit together.

It quickly became evident at our CodeCamp that the problems they are solving, and their solutions, aren’t that different.

Code for Africa, as mentioned in my first post, emphasizes media and civil society organizations (CSOs) as their key catalysts to improve people’s lives. There are several reasons. First and foremost, they can act as mass mobilizers - they offer built-in audiences made of a wider public that consumes their content out of a desire for information. When media and CSOs tap into the basic needs and concerns of these people, they can arm them with actionable information and trigger civic engagement. Furthermore, they can fill in gaps in government services - as Knight International Journalism Fellow Justin Arenstein says, “Go where government won’t.” Because of this relationship, they are also in a key position to spark the “demand side of data,” which is an essential problem the open data movement is still trying to solve. Thus, Code for Africa aims to help media and CSOs become more data driven and better equipped to build information products focused on these basic citizen needs and concerns.

Code for Europe (CfEurope), Code for America (CfAmerica) and the Code for the Caribbean (CftCaribbean), in turn, focus on government, itself. Government is seldom data driven, and it very often falls short in creating services designed around actual citizen needs, with citizens involved in the design process. Where CfAfrica embeds technologists— or “fellows”— into media and CSOs, these “Code fors” change that equation by embedding fellows into government agencies to bring new tools and disrupt the way that these agencies do business. Why local government? Because that is the level that most directly serves everyday citizens, and therefore has the most immediate impact on people’s daily lives.

CfAmerica, for instance, embeds three technologists into agencies in a single city. This enables the local fellows to have people nearby to bounce ideas of off and with whom to potentially collaborate. These fellows are also networked into the larger CfAmerica and civic tech communities through an annual summit.

One key difference between CfAfrica and CfAmerica has been the period of the embedded fellows. CfAfrica first piloted in Kenya at six months (the same as CftCaribbean’s pilot), but are now ramping up to 12-18 months. CfAmerica’s run at 11 months.

They all agree: Change takes time. Quick hits just don’t cut it.

But they don’t stop at embedding tech disruptors into media, CSO or government entities.

CfAfrica helps build “innovation ecosystems” that reinforce and sustain the impact of this disruption (which we learned at CodeCamp is much like Escuela de Datos/SocialTIC’s approach in Mexico. The fellows - so far in Kenya and South Africa, and soon Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania - are supported by a citizen tech lab that offers further development of tools and projects led by the fellows, and strategy for strengthening the capacity of the collaborating organizations to adopt these new practices and technologies. The labs also network with other labs and civic tech initiatives to share lessons learned and cultivate re-use and scaling of tools, so that they don’t operate in a bubble and burn resources reinventing wheels.

Simultaneously, Arenstein has established Hacks/Hackers chapters around Africa to connect broader communities of journalists and technologists. He has jumpstarted the use of data among journalists and their collaboration with coders and designers through data bootcamps and other hacking events. Finally, he has pulled together funding mechanisms, like the African News Innovation Challenge, that help pay for the development of much needed tools and experiments. All of this comes together as a pipeline of community, tools, organizational change and resources to overcome cost barriers, to avoid “one-off” interventions that are typical in media development and fall flat when attention shifts elsewhere or programs reach their end date.

Similar to Africa, CfEurope partners with external innovators, like tech accelerators and incubators, to provide additional tech developer expertise to the fellows and government agencies and connect them to a broader international civic tech network.

CfAmerica, in turn, sparks its own communities - called Brigades — to connect civic coders and other civic-minded citizens in places where there aren’t embedded CfAmerica Fellows. Brigades host regular meetups and coordinate hacking events, and form collaborative projects with local government agencies.

Then there is the challenge of how to share, technologically, successes and tools to the wider civic tech community. CfAmerica does this by means of its Commons, while CfEurope has built Civic Exchange. Both are very useful, but we learned at Bellagio that there are still important challenges yet to solve to leverage and scale this success through technology (which I will get into in a future post).

What struck me at the CodeCamp, as the various “Code for” leaders spoke, was how similar the organizational challenges they were solving sounded. Government and media are often surprisingly similar, regardless of geography or socio-politics. Common themes: bureaucracy, politics and paranoia of external threats, stagnation and wariness of change, unsure of the value of investing compared to more immediate needs and serious resource constraints, a single change agent isn’t enough, working within institutions isn’t enough, training people at the bottom produces minimal change,, buy-in at all levels is crucial.

That government and media (at least in these cases) face the same basic barriers to innovation and public service, and serve essentially the same public in surprisingly similar ways, strongly suggests that both should be engaged as part of any “Code for”-inspired solution. Certainly, government and media don’t always make the best of partners, as independence is intrinsic to quality journalism and government simply cannot always function in the open. But, we can find ways to share and leverage these commonalities, even if initiatives split along government-facing and media/CSO-facing organizational lines. Getting people in a room together can spark ideas and reinforce the idea that each is a piece of what is really a single puzzle.

I walked away thinking that the civic tech world should be thinking more of “government AND media,” not “government OR media.” Thanks to the CodeCamp, we’re one step closer.

Check out Storifies of key points and links from Day 1, and Days 2 and 3, of the strategy session.

Author’s note: This is the second in a series of posts that will highlight key thinking and outcomes of the CodeCamp at the Bellagio Center.