Telling stories using data and numbers

August 22, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


After an evening involving a tranquil dinner and free-flowing drinks at the ASJC’s opening ceremony yesterday, the participants embarked on serious business by dividing into various topic-specific groups.

Of particular interest was the session on data journalism run by Ernest Waititu, the programme director of health and digital media for Internews in Kenya.

In Waititu’s own words, “we live in a world where almost everything is expressed in numbers”. As the concept of telling stories using figures, numbers and data was fairly new, participants attending the session were shown how to get started with data journalism by being taken through sets of data.

“Mine the data first to find where the story is and humanize it,” said Waititu. It was an interactive session where journalists were taught hands-on data mining, filtering and analytical skills.

“In data journalism, there are so many stories to tell,” he said, adding that journalists need to know how to process numbers in Excel and other similar software programs.

Data journalism training in Nairobi. Photo credit: Friedrich Lindenberg

According to Waititu, journalists need to know how the public system works and how to interpret laws for effective use of data. “If a journalist doesn’t understand how the institutions of his or her country work, the data trail can be frustrating,” he said.

With most university journalism schools not teaching data journalism, journalists were encouraged to utilise any available training opportunities.

The first hands-on training session on data journalism was held earlier this year in Nairobi by the World Bank, Google (Open Knowledge Foundation) and the African Media Initiative.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Kenya to establish grant for women in science

August 22, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


Women scientists in Kenya got a major boost yesterday when the government announced it would establish a grant which awards female scientists up to three million Kenyan shillings. The announcement was made during the opening ceremony of the ASJC in Nakuru.

The move will put women scientists on a par with their male counterparts, allowing them to conduct research of relevance to the country.

“Participation of women in research has been low in many developing countries,” said Moses Rugutt, deputy secretary of Kenya’s National Council of Science and Technology during the ASJC opening gala. “Negative social and cultural practices have not allowed full exploitation of their research potential.”

Female PhD student collecting samples in Uganda. Photo credit: Karen Homer, AWARD

Rugutt noted that national development depends on a well-trained technical labour force, especially in science and technology.

“Kenya still lags behind in the technical human capacity required to unlock the huge potential within its agricultural fields and drive its industries,” he said.

Rugutt called for the need to lobby for at least one per cent GDP investment for Kenya to reap the full potential of science, technology and innovation (STI) for socio-economic development.

He challenged the science journalists attending the ASJC to help push the STI agenda to enable African countries to use science and technology as a platform to boost economic development.

According to Rugutt, there is a need to engage science journalists in effectively articulating STI issues by disseminating research information on STI, setting national and regional STI agendas and exposing scientific malpractice.

Many developing countries of the world have used STI to drive their development agenda based on sound research and innovative technological investment.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Journalists urged to educate public on harmful impacts of science

August 22, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) will release a report next month on the Global Chemicals Outlook project, detailing the impact of harmful chemicals on human health.

The report will be looking at the “massive” health and environmental impact that farm chemicals including pesticides and fertilizers have had on human health. There will be a special emphasis on developing countries, including Africa.

UNEP’s public communications officer Bryan Coll said the report, which will be made public on 4 September, will seek to capture the effect that chemicals such as lead and mercury are having on the planet. He added that it will also focus on actions which could help to minimise the impact.

Fertilising a field in north Africa. Photo credit: 10b travelling, flickr

Each year, billions of dollars are spent in managing the effects of chemicals on the planet. “The report will highlight the fact that by the year 2020, the effect of these chemicals on human health will reach US$90 billion,” Coll told the audience.

He told the ASJC that journalists must play their role in educating the public on how harmful scientific practices impact on public welfare.

“Proper packaging of science news stories will compel editors to use the stories and eventually we may see science news making headlines,” he said, observing that the perennial complaint that many African editors lack science coverage was slowly going away.

While little science news makes it on to the front page in Africa, Coll said there was a light at the end of the tunnel as news organisations are slowly but steadily making progress.

William Odinga, head of the Uganda Science Journalism Assocation, suggested that the prominence of science affairs was inevitable. He noted that science makes headlines when major public health issues arise, such as the recent outbreak of Ebola disease in Uganda.

Science writers ought to be better trained and go beyond mere reporting by being able to expose scientific malpractices such as exaggeration by experts, said Joseph Rugut, deputy head of Kenya’s National Council for Science and Technology.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


ASJC kicks off in Nakuru

August 21, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


The first Africa Science Journalists Conference took off on a high note in Kenya’s Nakuru town, the scenic tourist attraction in the spectacular Rift Valley. On the first day, journalists visited various field sites to give them an insight into the work of research institutions within the town.

Journalists had the chance to see a Home-Based Testing and Counselling programme which operates door-to-door among the manyattas (Maasai houses). This project offers HIV testing within the Maasai community and is run by Liverpool VCT, a Kenyan NGO. Other tour sites included Egerton University’s agro-based science park and a project to increase rust resistance in wheat at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. Nakuru’s Nuru farm was also open to visitors, a former hospital dump which now produces 60 tonnes of fruit and vegetables a year.

Nakuru, Kenya. Photo credit: meg and rahul, flickr

Over the next four days, ASCJ 2012 will attempt to answer questions around communicating new information and countering scepticism, with talks such as ‘Using nonsense detectors: how journalists can expose bad science’; ‘Community based Interventions in Science’ and ‘Ethical issues in science journalism in the age of new media’.

The apex of the conference will be an African declaration on effective science communication, which will “seek a binding commitment from African journalists, communicators and researchers to improve science writing in the continent”.

With high hopes for this high-profile conference achieving its objectives, the SciDev.Net team attending the forum will keep you posted on the latest developments.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Journey into the Mau forest with #asjc2012

August 21, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


It was an opening day that resembled no other, with no official opening ceremony. Session one, day one, saw field visits for all science journalism practitioners who had gathered in the Rift Valley town of Nakuru in Kenya.

After a hurried breakfast, everybody boarded the buses to their pre-selected destinations. These included visits to HIV/AIDS community projects, Kenya Agriculture Research Institute projects in the region, and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate labs.

For me, none of these were particularly exciting. Instead, I chose to tour the Mau forest, the biggest and most critical ‘natural water tower’ in the East Africa region, which stores rain during the wet seasons and pumps it out during the dry months. I wanted to hear and see how a community of less than three thousand people had battled with the Kenyan government to restore this vital part of their ecosystem. As one of Africa’s smallest communities, they were determined to conserve this water tower using traditional knowledge.

So after no less than 50 miles, mostly along rough roads, we reached Marioshoni village where the Ogiek community lives. In contrast to their traditional roles as hunter-gatherers, they now lead a modern, unhappy life as farmers. 65-year-old Kipkinie Morish told us how their food, medicine and livelihoods depend on the honey, bark and roots from the forest.

Mau Forest, Kenya. Photo credit: bbcworldservice, flickr

For years, the Kenyan government plundered the Mau forest, ejecting villagers from their homes. They shared out over 26,000 hectares of land, not only to the Ogiek people but also to already wealthy, greedy local leaders. As one of the biggest water catchments in the country, this had devastating effects on rainfall patterns, causing the forest to dry up and plantations to fail. In 1996, this community attempted to sue the government, and since then have taken their grievances to every other international conservation forum.

Their wish is that the forest land be returned to them, so that they can abandon farming and let the vegetation grow back. For a community so poor in material terms and so far removed from ‘civilisation’, only their traditional way of life will save them from extinction.

As we learnt from elder Morish, this indigenous knowledge could save his beloved Marioshoni village from frequent dry spells and restore rainfall levels to those from his childhood in the 1960s.

The Africa Science Journalists Conference (ASJC) “officially” begins later tonight.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.



Science journalism: filling gaps in Africa’s development at #asjc2012

August 17, 2012

Ochieng’ Ogodo

Ochieng’ Ogodo
Sub-Saharan Africa regional news editor, SciDev.Net



On Monday, and for the following five days, African journalists will converge in Kenya’s Nakuru town, situated in the bewitchingly scenic Rift Valley.

They will be attending the Africa Science Journalists Conference (ASJC). Among others, they will seek to delve deep into science news reporting, looking at various interesting issues such as transforming communities through digital technology, Africa’s fight to achieve its full agricultural productivity potential and intriguing debates like: ‘Why we do not need more science reporters’.

But what is the significance of this gathering and similar conferences elsewhere in Africa?

To me, the conference is one of the many noble efforts by journalists and journalists’ networks in the continent to inspire and mainstream science journalism. They aim for science reporting to become one of the integral components for Africa’s socio-economic transformation and democratisation.

The meeting, like many other similar meetings, will be held against the backdrop of a continent under political transition and the role of science journalism in the emerging socio-economic and political dispensations cannot be gainsaid.

In the mid-1980s, democratic theory and politics in Africa entered a new phase and a fresh wave of struggles for democratisation spread across the continent. It elicited vibrant debates on the processes, prospects, and problems of Africa’s democratic projects.

Many countries introduced political reforms and became somewhat democratic or were in the process of becoming so. Literature on African democracy exploded and the media has been awash with news about the changing political circumstances, but there has been very little on the scientific tools needed to transform the socio-political changes into tangible economic gains for the benefit of the majority of Africans.

Largely, there has been a lack of simplified scientific information for making informed choices.  But science journalism seems to be gaining more currency. Other upcoming science journalism meetings are scheduled: 19–20 September will see ‘Making Scientific Information more accessible for Africa’s development’, taking place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the first Pan-African Science Journalists Conference is planned for the end of the year.

But more needs to be done: for example, there have been recent calls for more science in the media in Ghana, and in Senegal, and for a dedicated science news service for Africa.

The ASJC, organised by Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture seems promising, and we will keep you posted on the proceedings through incisive blog posts from our esteemed writers. Watch this space.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


New opportunities in a changing landscape

April 27, 2012

Kathryn Strachan

Kathryn Strachan


African countries are at a turning point, where they have an opportunity to invest in research capacity and ‘leapfrog’ over research institutions in other parts of the world.

This was the optimistic message from Val Snewin, international activities manager for Britain’s Wellcome Trust, who was addressing a session of Forum 2012 on the topic of developing research capacity.

Snewin said that, in light of the recession in Europe and the United States, and set against positive economic growth in Africa, a new opportunity presented itself for African research capability.

Getting fitter: new opportunities are opening up for health research in Africa (Credit: Flickr/Oxfam)

“The world is shifting on its axis here,” she said. “But very few national governments are stepping up and engaging with it. We need political will, and for governments to invest in research capacity, where they can afford it.”

Two examples were Ghana and Tanzania, both of which were showing commitment to creating research and innovation.

Rene Loewensen, of EQUINET in Zimbabwe, said that a changing landscape, in which countries were being encouraged to take charge of their own health research agendas, also brought an opportunity to shift the paradigm of how research is carried out.

Previously the focus had been on building capacity in research institutions in universities, she said. Now there was a need to extend this research to a broader context.

Placing research capacity in the community and in health services would enable it to be more responsive to the needs of both the community and the country.

“It allows us to look at the real world, rather than at theoretical issues,” said Loewensen.

But this new focus on community and multidisciplinary research had also brought new challenges, such as how to keep track of quality in a rapidly changing field.

Yogan Pillay, deputy director general of the South African health department, said that policymakers were increasingly recognising the importance of research, but were now seeking an answer to “how to make it happen”.

The questions they faced were around the implementation of research results, and scaling them up to make a wide impact.

Kathryn Strachan is a freelance health and development journalist working in Johannesburg.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 


Declarations, dancing… but will the Forum deliver action?

April 3, 2012

Ochieng’ Ogodo

Ochieng’ Ogodo
Sub-Saharan Africa regional news editor, SciDev.Net


In an evening of a cosy buffet and free flowing drinks, many at the Forum’s conference dinner discussed Africa’s love of conferences and the lack of implementation of their outcomes.

Kenya’s Minister for Higher Education Science and Technology, Margaret Kamar, who was the host, could have not been more apt in terming the continent “a sleeping giant with tons of declarations with nothing being done to fulfil them.”

And she said she hoped that at the end of the Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation that scenario would change.

“I hope tomorrow will mark the end of declarations for Africa and we must translate these outcomes into development,” she said.

She had some food for thought for the delegates, that unlocking the continent’s potential won’t come from meetings and resolutions but on the ability of her people to wake up the giant and give it the much needed push to development.

“It’s time for science, technology and innovation in Africa and there is no short cut. We must do it. We want solutions that will work. Practical solutions for practical problems,” Kamar said.

The dinner was also a chance for delegates to relax after a long day’s deliberations, with African beats belching out from big speakers.  There was talents galore in footwork, and some very intricate and rare dance steps.  It was a reminder that everyone there, irrespective of their stations in public life — academics, diplomats, and even journalists like me — have many other gifts… including dancing.

Nonetheless, Kamar’s remarks echoed what has been said in many other places, at other meetings in other posh hotels, where excellent declarations have been made that rarely translate into tangible solutions for Africa’s people, the majority of whom are trapped in abject poverty.

Africa can only come unstuck with a paradigm shift, not business as usual.

We are now waiting to see how — and whether — this Nairobi meeting that had at its theme the promotion of Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive growth will contribute to bringing about real change.


A new scientific landscape – and countries that don’t fit in

November 17, 2011

Romain Murenzi: "Progress uneven"

Although the world is witnessing the emergence of new scientific powerhouses such as Brazil, China and India, the least developed countries are being left behind, the World Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary heard today (17 November).

Progress  (or otherwise) that emerging countries have made, and the rise in global collaborations in science and technology (S&T) have been the main threads of the talks at the forum so far.

Romain Murenzi, executive director of TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world said: “The progress that has been made is undeniable. But it has also been uneven”.

We must remember that our goal should be to build scientific capacity in all countries, he said, “in ways that enable science to become a global enterprise in the truest sense of the word”.

“Just six countries in the developing world account for more than three quarters of the scientific articles published in peer-reviewed international journals authored by scientists from the South,” he said.

He told SciDev.Net on the sidelines of the forum that some 2 billion people living in 81 developing countries that are scientifically lagging are still not seeing the benefits of growing global science.

These countries, mainly from Africa and the Islamic region, have been left behind in this new landscape, he said.

“The North-South gap in scientific capacity is narrowing on a global scale. But the country-to-country gap remains as wide as ever. A bi-polar world in science has become a multi-polar world in science. The age-old problem of yawning disparities between scientifically advanced and scientifically lagging countries persists – only in a different configuration.”

He sees part of the solution in more scientific collaboration and exchange between emerging countries and least developed ones. Students from lagging countries can now get the same quality science education in the emerging countries of the South as they can in the North but for less money. And those emerging countries benefit from the original points of view these students bring with them and the knowledge they create that stays in the host country.

 Mićo Tatalović, deputy news editor, SciDev.Net


Africa: poor but rich

June 29, 2011

Science can change Africa?

Informal settlements (commonly known as shacks) in South Africa do not only mirror poverty, or the government’s struggle to provide basic amenities for its people, they are also a sign of a potentially great resource – they are a recruiting ground for future scientists. This is the view of Barry Green, director of the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) based in South Africa.

Africa's main resource - its people - must be properly trained. Credit: Flickr/US Army Africa

Green said Africa has much potential. But it remains untapped as its main resource – its people – need to be properly trained to define their future.

In its efforts to change this, AIMS has been offering post-graduate study to Africans in mathematical sciences. It is also expanding its learning institutions across the continent.

Science is a formidable force that can improve the fortunes of Africa but it needs to be pursued with relevant policies and support, Ochieng Ogodo, SciDev.Net news editor for Sub-Saharan Africa, told the session.

In terms of innovation Africa is not putting new products on the market. Climate change is already wreaking havoc on the continent and water access was a huge problem.

Ogodo said the solution lay in African home grown science solutions. But, long and hard as the road to scientific emancipation might seem in Africa, the key message from the session was that locally credible research and appropriate policies were critical to turn fortunes of a rich but poor continent.

Munyaradzi Makoni, SciDev.Net contributor in South Africa


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