Category Archives: Politics

On the African media revolution

So, I decided to take a break.

I needed a holiday and since I gave up my big travel to Cape Town I opted for a short trip to Perugia, in Italy, to attend of my favourite events, the International Journalism Festival.
For those who have never heard of it, the event takes place in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy and features a variety of very interesting panel discussions around journalism and the future of the industry. This year I was pleasantly surprised to discover a number of sessions addressing the issue of media and innovation in the Global South.

The talk I attended was called The Future of African Media, and hosted five experts and media entrepreneurs who use innovative strategies and simple technologies in Africa.

In my job, I read tons of stories on global development and I think that by now I have a decent grasp of the economic landscape of the continent, at least in its main features. For example, I know that Africa’s economy is growing fast and its population is exceptionally young. A very fertile environment for innovation, especially in technology.

But yesterday I learnt how this somehow theoretical idea is actually a solid reality and it can also teach something to the rich North.

For example, check Code for Africa, an innovative journalism project that would stand out even in the high tech environment of many Western countries. The idea is to stop using journalism, data and technology to educate citizens about stuff they are supposed to care about, and start listening to their needs instead.

So the Code for Africa collective produces “news tools” such as data visualisations, mobile apps and data sets manually scraped and uploaded onto the internet. These are not only beautiful and playful, but also truly useful. People aren’t supposed to be interested for the sake of it, but will use the information as a service to improve their everyday life.

There is a tool that helps people register for the elections and vote and another one to keep track of medicines’ prices. Journalists who want to take part are taught how to scrape and use data and how to code, so they eventually will be able to build their own tools to display and add value to their investigation.

I imagine that when it comes to Africa it may be easy to identify practical needs of people, as in many countries there are economic and political problems that make it difficult to deal with simple things. But the idea could work in the Global North as well, it’s really just a matter of identifying what services are lacking in a certain community. And this makes the initiatives naturally very marketable.

If you want to know more about Code for Africa and other similar initiatives, you can check my audio interview to Justin Arenstein, which will be published on SciDev.Net shortly

Small chat about Africa and optimism

ridkid

The other day I interviewed my colleague Jon Spaull about his recent trip to South Africa, where he visited the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope. The telescope is still under construction but once completed, in 2028, it will enable astronomers to “monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky thousands of times faster than any system currently in existence.”

You will learn more about the project in the next SciDev podcast, or you can watch Jon’s film here.

While talking about the young researchers working at SKA, I realised that the strongest impression I got from I daresay all of my African friends and in general the African people I met, regardless social background, gender or age, is of a strong optimism.

Born and raised in a country where people know that the best is behind and the future is something from which one should protect oneself instead of embrace it, optimism always strikes me.

I drew a secret map of what people said me, the reasons why they want and believe they can make an impact in the respective countries. They look with trust at their political leaders or at the scientific progress of their nations. Sometimes they just believe that change will come from civil society. Having worked for a little while with African partners and having eagerly listened to the stories of those who travelled and lived in the continent, I came to think there is an element of truth in this positive narrative.

Of course once you detach yourself from the success stories you hear and report on, and look at solid data on poverty, governance, transparency or energy access the situation looks very different, and it makes you feel a bit of a fool.

But I think that optimism is a mandatory first step in a drive for change. That’s what’s lacking in my homecountry. People want a change, but nobody really believes it’s going to happen, or it’s even possible.

Here’s a soundbite of me and Jon that I randomly grabbed during our interview.

In memory of a freedom fighter

aaron-swartz

I am not a programmer, and I don’t know much about the inception and evolution of the open access movement. But I spend a great part of my day on the internet.

The internet gave me a job, reshaped my social life and my ethics.

Today I discovered that exactly one year ago an internet activist, Aaron Swartz, committed suicide after being charged with illegally accessing a computer network at the MIT. He was just 2 years younger than me.

It makes me proud to know that in my new life, which I gained at the price of my homecountry, I have the power to act, the freedom to speak and the means to learn from people like Aaron Swartz.

Journalists aren’t so different from internet activists after all. We all fight for justice, we take up the same battle.

Aaron Swartz won’t be forgotten by the hacker community, but we should remember him as well.

#Reflective Journalism – day two

Building a Narrative

Not exactly the most productive Saturday morning. But it’s a weekend after all. In order to write the extensive proposal I am gonna submit to the – potential – hosting platform next week, I need to lay out a clear structure.

The first thing we’ve been taught at the beginning of the year is that each article must tell a story; therefore it needs a narrative that flows well: A goes to B, B goes to C.

This project is about building a strong narrative that flows throughout a series of seven posts. Not only every article must tell a compelling story, but it should lead to the next one like each step brings you higher in a stair. So here’s my first map, I wrote it pencil on paper like a proper marketing strategist. Or an investigative journalist if you prefer.

reflective1 reflective2

Fancy eh?

Maybe the final point needs a bit of clarification, but I’m almost there.

reflective3

2013. Brace yourself

My personal survival guide.

So, here we go with a new year. So much time to spend at your best, some ideas, more fears than yesterday, less than tomorrow.

And a recession to face. Let’s forget about climate change, just for a minute. The economic crisis – not only in Italy or in the PIIGS – is just around the corner and is more than worrying for people approaching their first job (like me in the UK). Tackling the situation requires individual actions as well as Government’s ones.

Sometimes I wonder where is my place in this historical juncture, and where the society is going. Will I have the chance to come back to Italy with a decent job, or the UK will become my new home?

For now, I am gathering suggestions – given aloud or not – from teachers, bosses, colleagues; all the world around me, both in Italy and in the UK. What I am trying to do is answer the question our teacher asked on early december, just before the end of the term:

What do you do in a recession?

What I would do is specialize. Building my own, unique expertise may help to be more competitive on the market, and it might overweigh my language weaknesses.

Secondly, I mean to shift as much as possible to new media, combining technical skills (and maybe a bit of SEO) with smart content managing. There are things you can say and show on the Internet which can’t be said anywhere else.

For instance, interactive data visualization. Doing it properly is not easy, as it requires a number of competences, ranging from investigative journalism to data analysis. But it’s also really funny, and has a great potential in terms of employability, I think.

What I think the Government should do, instead, is enhancing innovation. Investments in new ideas have the potential to pull the country out of a recession, because they lead to a new economic planning and eventually produce different social and cultural paradigms. But this is a long term measure, which doesn’t have tangible effects in the short period.

So it is very unlikely to be adopted on massive scale, as I have sadly experienced in Italy. Under this respect, I don’t think that the Union Jack will behave very differently. The more the crisis get serious, the more a crunch occurs in the country’s economy. And the long term investments are always the first to be killed.

What we can do as individuals? We can participate to the community’s political life, of course. But moreover, I think, we need to bear in mind our personal survival guide. What would you include in your list?

Skeptical Science: how do they do

I am truly in love with this absolutely brilliant website, which invites its readers

to get skeptical about global warming skepticism.

In particular, I find hilarious the way they explain serious scientific matters in an ironic way, which ends up in mocking the sceptical approach to scientific method.

However, it’s important to clarify why in this case mockery is fully justifiable. Normally, in a scientific debate one should always respect the opponent, recognising his intellectual honesty.

But within the climate debate we face a plainly dishonest and  clumsy data manipulation. Although it is often effective in addressing the public opinion, this practice is based on bad science. Sceptical science commits brutal mistakes in terms of scale and moreover, when presenting figures describing climate change trends,

it uses a cherry picking strategy.

What is cherry picking then. Firstly, here is a picture which tells more than a thousand words:

from Skeptical Science

Basically, what they do is considering a small bit of the available data to describe an entire scenario. As you can see in the graph, since the ocean heating is a massive phenomenon, which contradicts the sceptical claim about climate change being a minor problem, they just don’t take it into account.

The same is done, an this is definitely more worrying, with the calculation of the global warming trends. You might have heard that climate change is a hoax, because rise of global atmospheric mean temperatures is so small as to be irrelevant. Sometimes you will find such claims supported by graphs and figures.

Skeptical Science explains how do they obtain their numbers. Introducing the Escalator!Here you can see how sceptic scientists view global warming:

Below, how realists calculate it:

And here, both frames together:

This last graph shows what does “cherry picking” means: looking only one bit at a time, you’ll notice that the the mean temperature’s trend seems to remain the same and in some cases even dwindles.

Whitout the red line clarifying that in a span of about 40 years the mean temperatures of the global surface have spiked, you wouldn’t understand why scientific community and policy makers around the world are so worried.

In science there are no certainties, but there are fields in which bad faith is so crystal clear that a little irony is definitely allowed.

tweet climate

Trust the UK!

The Freedom of Information Act

is an Act of Parliament of 
the Parliament of the United Kingdom 
that creates a public "right of access" to information 
held by public authorities.

For those who don’t know how it works, like me when I heard of it for the first time, it is based on a simple principle of trust and transparency. You ask, the Government responds.

The idea is that clear, but the procedure can be tricky. There are a number of bureaucratic obstacles, and often you will see your request rejected because of national security, or because the text you have sent was inaccurate or convolute.

So, hypotetically, the public authority could dodge the regulation without serious consequences. As a journalist (or particularly stubborn citizen) you can appeal until trial, but most people would probably give up well before.

But, slightly surprisingly for the Italian spectator, accustomed to look at the public administration as a hurdle, this doesn’t happen so often. Instead, the public officer is usually a person who really believes in what he does and tries to help you the most.

Here lays the beauty of this system, which is based upon mutual trust between citizens and public institutions.

The law and the regulations are in place, but they can work only thanks to adminstration’s honesty and people’s trust.

Sometimes I wonder if such an agreement could be possible in Italy. I doubt it; and not even because of bad faith, but above all because the public administration is deeply disorganized.

However, in Italy there is an association which claims the adoption of Freedom of Information Act. And the more I dig into this topic, the more I discover we have a number of different regulations supporting transparency and open data in the country.

I wouldn’t have thought so, given Italy has one of the worst situations in the world in terms of press freedom.

However, it’s good to know that some regulation designed for the common good does actually exist also in my troubled country.