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Published on June 30th, 2016 | by EJC

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5 Ways Journalists Benefit From Digital Dividends

More than 40% of the world’s population is connected to the internet – and digital technologies are spreading fast.

From corruption to agriculture, digital technologies have the capacity to yield a number of broad development benefits through the facilitation of information flows or the opening up of new communication channels. In a new report, The World Bank refers to these benefits as ‘digital dividends’.

Journalists, with their inherent focus on communication, are clear beneficiaries of these dividends. Digital technologies in hand, journalists are able to build an expanding repository of data and information to inform better reportage.

Using The World Bank’s report as a starting point, we compiled a roundup of five ways these digital dividends facilitate better reporting on development and emergency stories.

1. Technology can help unveil illicit money flows

Global communication networks have made it easier to move illicit money around the world and to shelter assets from domestic tax authorities. But recent high-profile cases also show how a combination of human intervention and technology increases the chances of detection. In each case, large datasets were leaked by insiders to tax officials or watchdog groups such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). One case in 2014, Offshore Leaks, yielded 260 gigabytes of accounts data in off shore tax havens, including the British Virgin Islands and Cook Islands. Collaborating with media outlets, experts from Costa Rica, Germany, Malta, and the United Kingdom developed automated software tools for organizing and searching this massive dataset.

offshore

 

The largest number of addresses tied to these off shore accounts were from a number of large emerging economies. Besides Offshore Leaks, Swiss Leaks yielded data about secret bank accounts in Switzerland, and Lux Leaks documented strategies that international corporations use to avoid taxes in countries where they make profits, notably by channelling them through Luxembourg. While many clients are from developing countries, they get help from western accountants, and much of the money ends up in industrialized countries or their off shore territories. Increased transparency, thanks to technology’s ability to sift through large leaked datasets, is encouraging reforms that will make it harder to hide assets in foreign jurisdictions.

More recently, the Panama Papers implicated 14 world leaders and over 140 politicians – so far – in questionable financial dealings. As a result, governments have been reinvigorated in their calls to curb legal, but morally questionable tax schemes, whilst casting a sharper eye on illegal modes of tax avoidance and evasion.

2. Greater integrity in election reporting

Improving electoral integrity requires effective media, nongovernmental organizations, and partnerships between technologists, advocacy groups, and government watchdogs to gather, analyze, disseminate, and act upon relevant information. Consider the contrasting experiences of Ushahidi and Uchaguzi, two digital election-monitoring initiatives in Kenya. Ushahidi, one of the best-known digital platforms in the world, was launched in the aftermath of Kenya’s tumultuous 2007 election and used “citizen reporters” to crowdsource and map incidents of violence after the election. While the platform galvanized considerable interest initially—with more 45,000 users in its first few months—many of the reports were not actionable, and there was limited response from the authorities.

Learning from this experience, Ushahidi and a group of journalists and civil society organizations launched its successor, Uchaguzi, to monitor Kenya’s 2010 constitutional referendum. But this time, the effort combined citizen crowdsourcing with analysis by specialized civil society organizations with experience monitoring elections to provide actionable information to local and national government officials, in particular the Interim Independent Electoral Commission. This partnership was a success, with the government responding to a majority of the reports. Ushahidi’s implicit belief was that the platform would by itself be the agent of change. Uchaguzi—or “Ushahidi 2.0”—recognizes that the platform can work only if it amplifies existing institutions. The main lesson is that governments may be dysfunctional, but can only rarely be bypassed. As one of the founders of the initiative commented after the local police—infamous in Kenya for their venality and brutality—successfully responded to an online citizen report of a machete-armed mob gathering outside a local polling station, “We can’t compel organizations to act. We can support institutions, but we can’t replace them.”

uchaguzi

 

3. New agricultural information flows

Agricultural product markets in many developing countries are poorly integrated. High search costs have tended to lower competition and create an inefficient allocation of goods across markets. When the internet took off in the mid-1990s, it was often claimed that it would improve price transparency, cut out middlemen, and make markets more efficient. Indeed, rapid adoption of digital technologies has dramatically reduced the search costs incurred by farmers and traders, and hence overcome an important constraint in the context of limited infrastructure. As Robert Jensen’s classic 2007 study of sardine fishermen and wholesalers in Kerala, India, found, the introduction of mobile phone service dramatically reduced price dispersion and waste in the sardine catch, increasing welfare for producers and consumers.

sardine

 

Similar effects have been shown for communication platforms such as Esoko in Ghana, e-Choupal in India, and telecenters in Peru, as well as studies on grain traders in Niger and farmers in the Philippines.

4. More channels for public health communication

Providing rural health care is a major challenge in countries with large rural populations. For example, in Ethiopia, more than 80 percent of the population lives outside of urban areas and more than 30 percent of the rural population is poor. Since 2003, the Ethiopian government has trained and deployed over 40,000 Health Extension Workers (HEWs) to serve rural and other hard-to-reach populations. However, HEWs are often isolated and lack the capacity to prioritize urgent but unpredictable antenatal and postnatal care.

To improve information flows, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and Addis Ababa University developed the FrontlineSMS platform. HEWs can register pregnant women and newborns and receive automated short message service (SMS) reminders to notify them of key appointments and to track the stock of essential medicines. An evaluation showed that by using existing mobile networks and low-cost feature phones, the system improved the ability of health workers to deliver services and improve health outcomes. More women had skilled assistance with their delivery, more women delivered in health centers, and more women received antenatal care. The system improved HEWs’ capacity to respond in a timely manner and shows that in a context where internet coverage is low, mobile phones can be an effective way to improve health system performance.

5. Opening avenues for data driven journalism

The world is witnessing an unprecedented explosion of data. Digital data overtook analog around 1998, and in 2013 amounted to 46 billion trillion bytes. That’s equivalent to about 400 trillion printed copies of this Report, which when stacked would reach from Earth to well beyond Pluto.

In harnessing this data explosion for development, attention focuses on two overlapping innovations: “big data” and open data. Big data are voluminous or fast. They come, for instance, from satellite and ground sensors and as by-products (“data exhaust”) from electronic transactions and from mobile phone calls. The promise of big data is to provide information of unprecedented scope, detail, or rapidity. For instance, Global Forest Watch crunches massive amounts of open satellite data in order to generate near real-time, global maps of tropical deforestation. Open data are those that are freely and easily accessible, machine-readable, and explicitly unrestricted in use.

Open data aren’t necessarily big, and big data aren’t necessarily open. Governments are, or could be, important sources of data on population, public budgets, education and health facility usage and status, weather, and trade. When opened, these data can be combined and recombined in ways that directly benefit the public (for instance, by increasing the transparency and accountability of government) and provide the basis for commercial, value-added services (such as apps for navigating public transit). The following are just some examples of both big and open data in action:

  • Informing relief efforts in the wake of the Nepal earthquake: A critical need in disaster relief is to track displaced populations for efficient logistics planning. Cellphone location data can provide comprehensive, real-time information on population, but cellphone operators are often reluctant to share this data for technical, confidentiality, or competitive reasons. Flowminder, a Swedish nongovernmental organization (NGO), has worked out procedures for accessing this data and has used it to estimate population movements following the 2015 earthquake to aid in relief efforts.
  • Real-time independent measures of inflation: PriceStats computes daily inflation data for 22 economies by scraping price data from the web. These infl ation statistics are more timely than offi cial numbers, and provide an independent cross-check.
  • Accountability for subsidies in MexicoFundar Center for Analysis and Research, a Mexican NGO, persuaded the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture to open its data on the large PROCAMPO subsidy program. The data showed that 57 percent of the benefits were going to the wealthiest 10 percent of recipients. A website now tracks these and other financial flows, and allows data to be visualized.

Mexico

For more information on Digital Dividends, you can read The World Bank’s full report here.

Image: Dean Hochman

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