It’s a question that Sheila Coronel of Columbia University, moderating a panel on data at the MDLF Media Forum in Jakarta, posed to Roby Alampay from InterAkyson, the online arm of TV5 in the Philippines, Africa-based Justin Arenstein and me. It’s a good question, and probably one that ought to be asked more in newsrooms around the world, but especially in resource-strapped organizations. Money, time and people devoted to a data project means they aren’t working on something else – so the data project better have some legs; and too many don’t.
But Roby’s signature project, a near real-time traffic tracker in Manila, does – in fact, it’s not just a data project that has strong viewership, low costs and a long shelf-life; it’s part of a strategic plan for his organization to play a central role in data journalism in the Philippines. Oh, and he’s revolutionizing the practice of digitizing data at the same time.
Call it taking the very long view.
Roby’s strategy starts with getting data, and the very fundamental problem that a lot of journalists in developing countries face: There isn’t much. In his case, he needed traffic data, and he knew the
police Metropolitan Manila Development Authority collected it – if you call jotting down reports on a whiteboard and erasing them every 15 minutes “collecting.”
So he went to see them with an offer: He’d give them what they needed to store that information in a database if he could get access to it. It didn’t take much: A donation of three (cheap) desktops to the
police department MMDA and paying for internet connectivity. The beauty is that he gets the data, but so, too, does the police MMDA – in theory, at least, giving them more tools to help unsnarl the perpetual gridlock that is Manila’s traffic.
As he noted in his presentation, in a great line that was endlessly retweeted:
Render what is digital. Digitize what is not.
The result is a hugely useful piece of service journalism that helps Manila residents more effectively navigate their city – and as anyone who’s been caught in a multi-hour jam there can attest, that’s not a small gift.
But much more importantly, as Roby notes, the goal isn’t simply to help Manila residents get around traffic jams. It’s the development of a mapping platform (and underlying CMS) that users become accustomed to visiting regularly – and to which he can add increasing amounts of data (gas pump prices, school locations, health alerts, flood warnings, election returns, etc). Not all that data will fall neatly into the map’s interface, but much will – and if it works right, Roby will be at the center of a data revolution in the city.
There are good journalistic and business reasons for this. Creating and aggregating the data means not just the potential for good stories – say, tracking dengue fever outbreaks around schools – but also providing useful service journalism to users. (Similarly, during earlier flooding in Manila, GMA, another TV station, used its site to allow people to report sightings and missing people.)
The business reasons are just as important. All newsrooms – even Roby’s, which is owned by one of the Philippines” richest businessmen – have limited resources, not just of money but of attention. You can’t pursue all projects; and one way to prioritize is to pick the ones that have longer shelf-lives and serve a broader strategic purpose.
Sure, it’s important to come up with great interactives for deeply-reported enterprise works – especially if you want to win a prize – but there’s less value there if the sites aren’t updated or are left to languish after publication. Keeping a site updated and robust is non-trivial work; so you need to figure out when it pays off and when it doesn’t. In theory, for example, WhoRunsHK could have been such a platform at the South China Morning Post; a regularly-updated database of key people and their connections in Hong Kong could have provided journalistic insights – as it did for a number of stories – as well as a source of continuing traffic, while offering the potential for expansion to include more people down the road. Oh, well.
At InterAksyon, Roby has mapped out – so to speak – a real long-term plan for his project. It’s going to be great to watch it unfold.
(updated to correct the government body that collects the traffic data)