Data Journalism Boosts Voter Registration in Kenya

Nov 242012

A small low-cost data journalism experiment in Kenya this week has shown just how useful open data can be to ordinary African citizens.

Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) published the location of voter registration centers around the country for the first time on Monday - but they released this important information as a PDF, which is fairly large to download and really difficult for ordinary citizens to read. Even professional infomediaries, like media and civil society organisations who gather and organize information, would only ever use a fraction of the content of the PDF.

Our pioneering Code4Kenya initiative immediately realized that the information trapped in the PDF was just too important to ignore. So, Code4Kenya's lead developer David Lemayian and one of the initiative's Data Fellows, Simeon Oriko, got to work. First, they liberated the information, by scraping the data from the PDF into an interactive spreadsheet. Then, they built the simple GotToVote! website on top of it.

The project took just 24 hours from start to finish, but the results speak for themselves: More than 2,500 people visited the website within hours of it going live, using it to find out where their nearest voting center is located and where they should register for the elections. Traffic to the site continues to grow as word about the resource spreads. Simple but powerful.

The experiment proves that:

  • Open data projects need not be expensive. GotToVote! cost less than $500 for everything from development, to logos, to domain registration and hosting. Compare this to the millions of U.S. dollars spent on similar NGO sites that seldom attract more than a couple hundred users - ever.
  • Open data projects do not need huge teams to be successful. GotToVote! was built by just two people, with passion, a clear vision and the right skills.
  • Open data projects need not be time consuming. The usefulness of data, like news, is often time sensitive. GotToVote! proves that it is possible to build something meaningful and useful in just 24 hours.
  • Open data doesn't have to be complex to matter. Simple, powerful ideas, with granular data and a clean user interface, can make a profound impact.
  • Open data doesn't have to be handed to you on a plate. Often, the most useful data is the stuff that we liberate, by extracting it from inaccessible PDFs or other "prisons" where bureaucracy locks up public information.
  • Open data is most powerful when it gives ordinary citizens "actionable" information about how the world impacts their personal lives or local communities.

So, how did we have the right people, in the right place, at the right time? The Code4Kenya project is a six-month experiment by the African Media Initiative (AMI) and the World Bank (WB) to try revolutionize the way that African journalists and civic activists use data. It does so by embedding Data Fellows into three of Kenya's largest newsrooms, as well as one grassroots civic organization, to help kickstart experimentation with data-driven civic engagement and "utility news" tools. The embedded Fellows are supported by an external software development team. The whole program is managed by an extremely agile "think/do" tank - the Open Institute.

The Code4Kenya pilot has worked so well that AMI has just committed funding toward the core team of developers for an additional 12 months. They will evolve, we hope, into a jAccelerator lab that will help fast-track data and digital experiments in African newsrooms, much like they did with GotToVote! this week. A further 10 data-driven newsroom tools and services built by Code4Kenya will be rolled out in the next couple of months. They include Africa's first newsroom-driven open data portals, the continent's first fully fledged data desks in newsrooms, and a series of apps or services to both help reporters do their jobs more effectively and help audiences better understand the news.

But you don't have to wait until then to start experimenting yourself. All the data used on GotToVote! is freely available on another Code4Kenya project: the portal, which despite being in early beta phase (still without a logo or proper graphic design), has in just two short months grown into the continent’s largest repository of public data, ranging from government budget and tender information, to data about parliamentarians and other public officials.