Eva Constantaras

Tough lessons from the brave new world of data journalism

November 28, 2017
Eva Constantaras, data journalism advisor for Internews, on what Western media can learn from developing countries.

By Ciara Del Grosso Bates

Constantaras travels the developing world teaching newsrooms to work with data and set up their own data desks. Each country is different, and has its own challenges, but what makes a tough country to live in can make a great home for emerging data journalists, says Eva. Bad journalism is widespread- but there is also no echo chamber, no polling data, no social data. 

"(In the US elections) data journalists failed to do their job," - Eva Constantaras

In the recent US elections, journalists were too excited by trends and social data, she said, "There was too much analysis on people’s own navel gazing,"

Her most successful program has been in Kenya, where journalism projects by local media have led to changes in government policy. Kenya may have been an ideal environment for Eva’s work - in part, because of the kind of data openly available.

"The nice thing about developing countries is a lot of the data is collected by think tanks and universities who are happy to explain their data" she said.

And, because it has largely been untouched by serious data journalists, you don’t even need to dig too deep to find impactful stories.

"Even basic stories about health or education could turn up something new" she said. But, it’s important to think about what the stories mean to people on a personal level.

"Corruption is taken for granted, so proving someone is stealing isn’t enough" says Constantaras. Instead, "you can take a fresh look at everyone’s pledges and give people information they might not have known before".

Local people’s priorities, such as finding the safest hospital to give birth in, are central to really good data journalism. So is pointing the finger of blame when something goes wrong.

"Can we use data to find out whose fault it is?" Asks Eva. 

Another successful project was India Spend, whose new data desk has built up a reputation for fact-checking public figures.

In one story, the paper used maps with data to show Indians that rich areas also have high infant mortality and poor child health, bringing the issue to the attention of more families and making it relate to them. 

Eva says it’s about "trying to get people to pay attention to how their vote impacts their own families". Back in pre-election America, she says, "nobody wrote that story".

 "Nobody looked to see if we implemented Trump’s policy, would it create more jobs for poor white people?" she said, pointing out that some organisations are excellent fact-checkers - such as NPR.

Unfortunately, Eva says, their debate fact checks were only being read by liberals. "Unless you establish yourself as a non-partisan mass media, you’re probably just preaching to the choir."

In Kenya, the Nation Newsplex team serve their fact checks with a neutral flavour- instead of asking "did X politician lie about this in his speech?" which can turn off his supporters before they read- the paper asks "is (the thing he claimed) true?".

Eva helped set up and train the team, made up of four data journalists. Now she says they’re "doing really well" and will probably be independent from now on.

Pakistan and Afghanistan also have data desks up and running, and there are more countries to follow.

It takes around two hundred hours in training and production, Eva says, and she starts them slowly, just looking at the data and understanding how it works. 

"A little data is a dangerous thing," - Eva Constantaras

Whether in the developed or developing world, Eva believes good data journalism meets the same criteria.

Did citizens care? Did the coverage have impact? Did people collaborate? Do we have further accountability? And finally, did anybody (who did the work) get paid?