Code for Africa (CfAfrica) is a continental initiative designed to rewire that way that African societies work, by giving ordinary citizens access to actionable information. Unlike similar initiatives elsewhere in the world, CfAfrica is not a government or donor initiative. It is instead being rolled out by the continent’s largest association of media owners / operators, the African Media Initiative (AMI), in partnership with grassroots citizen organisations. The initiative includes a strong data journalism focus, designed to support the growth of evidence-base public discourse.
It is important for the #OpenData movement to acknowledge that “Follow the Money” is not new as a concept. Journalists have been doing it for over a hundred years. In fact, it is a central precept of investigative journalism, with strong methodology and loads of examples of how data - both numeric and textual data - have been used to create real-world impacts. I’m going to give you two quick examples, illustrating some of the different ways that journalists #FollowTheMoney to create impact. The 1st example starts in the impoverished village of Chovdar, in Azerbaijan. Villagers’ already dire lives were made almost impossible when a new gold mine dammed local streams and the village water supply suddenly dried up. The image in the bottom right of this slide is a photo of the only water pipe still functioning when OCCRP reporter Khadija Ismayilova started looking into the issue. All that locals could tell her was that the “ingilis" — the local name for the British — were to blame. The gold mining company, villagers said, was from the UK … which made it almost impossible to hold accountable or to fight.
So, Khadija did what all good investigative reporters do: she followed the money. Her research soon confirmed that a UK-led consortium, AIMROC (Azerbaijan International Mineral Resources Operating Company Ltd) had been granted exclusive license — by presidential decree — to the $2,5bn of gold and silver believed to be under Chovdar. It was also granted concessions for a further five goldfields in the country. So, just who is AIMROC? The villagers believed it was simply greedy foreigners. But, by following the money, Khadija soon realized the four companies making up the consortium were all shell companies, with the crucial ‘controlling partner’ Globex İnternational owned by a further three companies registered in offshore havens like the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis and nearby Panama … where scrapped registry records revealed a complex web of proxies that finally left the companies controlled by the two glamorous women in this picture: the daughters of Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev. Only by following the money — and defying intimidation & attempted blackmail — did Khadija expose the real puppet-masters behind Chovdar’s plight. Khadija’s excellent sleuth work would not have been possible without OCCRP’s team of hackivists and data analysts.
The Azerbaijan story represents a fairly traditional investigative approach, using modern forensic data tools. This next example, from Ghana, demonstrates how investigative journalists also use crowdsourcing, and data scraping and data visualization to personalize #FollowTheMoney stories and to create actionable intel for audiences. WhereMyMoneyDey was built in just 3-days, by a mixed team of journalists, hacktivists, and community volunteers during a d|Bootcamp, earlier this year. It was designed to solve a riddle that both government and mining companies had been refusing to answer villagers on: what was happening to the 3% royalty that mining companies were supposed to be paying to communities as compensation for extracting local gold, oil, and other wealth? The team also couldn’t get answers from government or mining companies, so they used digital tools to track offshore company records, environmental impact reports, and filings on the SEC in the US and on stock exchanges in Canada, South Africa, and Australia. They scrapped this data and, buried in the data, found reports of the exact amounts paid to Ghanaian authorities. To understand the rest of the trail, they then scrapped the Ghana budget, to try see how the royalties were being spent. The result is a simple interactive website, and a sister SMS query service, that helps villagers check just how much their community is owed, how much mining companies paid, and whether government and chiefs are using that money as they should. And, if villagers aren’t happy with the answers, the site gives communities tools to petition government, plus connect them with other concerned citizens. It also offers tools for documenting the local situation, and for villagers to keep both themselves and other interested parties updated on any developments. The entire project, which is still in prototype mode, cost just $500 to pull together … showing that data-driven #FollowTheMoney projects don’t have to be expensive.
How do small newsrooms and watchdog citizen groups do this kind of work? By using many of the same tools, methodologies, and strategies being discussed by the #OpenData movement today. Rather than reinventing the wheel, there are powerful opportunities for synergies and partnerships. OCCRP and my own organisation, for example, built the Investigative Dashboard in 2009. It has just been relaunched, with additional features & better resources, with help from Google Ideas. It combines data scraping and company registrars, with a trove of semantically analyzed documents from whistleblowers and other sources, backed up by a global network of forensic research desks to help muckraking journalists and social justice activists track illicit networks across borders.
But, company and financial records are only half the picture. Crucial contextual information is locked up — as deadwood (paper) or PDF -based knowledge — in fragmented libraries and digital ghettos in newsrooms, public oversight bodies, universities, and NGOs. So, Code for Africa and its investigative journalism partner, ANCIR, is systematically liberating the data by digitizing records across Africa, making it machine readable, and them creating structured data and linked data with the results. This includes everything from court records and the results of thousands of FOIA requests, to whistleblower documents, leaked materials, and original research. The plan is to establish sourceAFRICA as a kind of community-owned and managed “Library of Congress” for all liberated documents in Africa. The platform, which runs on a version of DocumentCloud hosted in a safe jurisdiction, is available for #FollowTheMoney partners to use.
We are also building a raft of other “backbone” infrastructure projects … but the tools and technology are the smallest part of the initiative. They mean nothing if we don’t have a robust community of skilled and engaged users. We are therefore building a diversified ecosystem of communities, ranging from ANCIR as a network of 16 top-class investigative newsrooms, to 14 chapters of Hacks/Hackers across the continent, and other specialist groups include OKF chapters, and ODADI groups, etc.
These communities share skills, at everything from weeklong intensely immersive d|Bootcamps for 100 collaborators, to half-day d|Clinic project planning sessions for teams as small as six experts. The communities also host regular hackdays, support and fund collaborative projects, share their insights at data summits, and participate in a 21,000-strong online community. The community doesn’t just focus on the “makers”: we also deliberately and regularly engage c-level executives, through high-level d|Roundtables, to secure budget and other material support for our initiatives.
Community alone, even if bolstered with tools and skills, isn’t enough. You also need physical spaces, or laboratories, for pioneers to find each other and collaborate on problem-solving. So, Code for Africa currently underwrites CitizenLabs in four countries in Africa by taking space in existing tech incubators or accelerators. These ‘media factories’ are catalysts for projects, resources, and ideas. They are the human backbone that mirrors our digital backbone infrastructure.
So, how do we keep all these initiatives — all these moving parts — coherent and focused? We have three core guiding principles: 1st by ensuring that all our initiatives and strategies are citizen focused, that they are designed to create ‘active citizenry’ by helping people shape their own solutions from the bottom-up.
This focus on citizen solutions means that we are ‘demand driven’, as opposed to the usual ‘supply driven’ approach where government and corporates push information they think is important at citizens. Our approach is to ask citizens what information or solutions they need, to make life changing decisions, and to then try match needs with resources, tech partners, and support networks.
We also try to build stuff that matters. We want to build stuff that changes the way people live. This means keeping things as practical, as useful, and as relevant as possible.
And, the final principle that we apply is one of partnerships. No true ecosystem is dominated by a single player. So, we build dynamic partnerships, of likeminded organisations who strive to create citizen agency for Africans. We’d love you to join us, to leverage our resources, and to tap into our communities. Give us a shout if you have ideas.
How Investigative Journalists
Use Data To Create Impact
2. Using Data to Tell Stories:
Using data to expose hidden webs.
3. Citizen Tools:
Data needs to be
be meaningful. It
should help citizens
decipher & navigate
the complex forces
shaping their worlds. It
4. Forensic Tools / Research Desks:
Tracking money, deciphering contracts, and pinning down
company ownership is difficult. ID creates a centralized
research team to help newsrooms / transparency activists.
5. sourceAFRICA - turning parliamentary,
newsroom & university archives into
machine readable data
By digitizing documents and knowledge
within media, academia, the justice system,
and civil society, we're turning 'deadwood'
archives into new digital 'structured data'
resources, with open APIs to allow for 3rd
We're creating a diverse community of
watchdog journalists, civic hackers, data
activists and data narrators through a
pan-African network of investigative
newsrooms, ANCIR, and a mirror
network of Hacks/Hackers chapters,
cwho collaborate during Data Liberation
7. MediaParty data summits
d|Clinic project planning
8. Citizen Tech Labs:
Core teams of coders in jAccelerators, with
additional mentorships + workspace for
journalistic data teams, media start-ups and
citizen-driven projects in Media Factory
incubators across Africa + Latin America.