How an Indian data journalism initiative is bringing data into the mainstream across Asia

A series of data boot camps is helping journalists in Asia connect with data scientists, medical doctors, and policy makers. What could others learn from this successful initiative?

Since 2015, a series of data boot camps has promoted data-driven research and journalism across Asia by bringing together journalists and experts from other fields: data organisations, businesses, and government agencies.

The boot camps are an initiative by DataLEADS, an Indian data-driven organisation that runs a series of initiatives including the Centre for Investigative Journalism in India, RECAP ASIA, and Health Analytics India, a website dedicated to healthcare data and information in India. They work with various media companies, foundations and initiatives, including Asia News Network, a coalition of 22 leading Asian daily newspapers in 20 Asian countries. Together with local partners such as universities and institutes, DataLEADS has supported the development of number of media outlets across Asia, including newspapers, mobile news networks and media start-ups.

We caught up with Syed Nazakat, the Founder and CEO of DataLEADS, to hear about the challenges and successes of the boot camps, how journalists benefit from working with specialists from other domains, and to hear where the initiative might be heading in the future.

What was the reasoning behind starting the boot camps?

Syed Nazakat

The initiative started in 2015. After launching India’s first data-driven online platform for health stories, we wanted to reach out to our audience to build collaboration with domain experts. After consultation with our team, a precise idea took shape: we decided to hold our first data boot camp for journalists, doctors, and data researchers in the Himalayan region of Kashmir in India.

Our big concern was whether doctors and data researchers would come and sit in teams with journalists. When the session began we were surprised to see that the room was half full – of doctors! The journalists were still trickling in one by one.

What is the typical format for the boot camps?

The boot camps are experiential and fun, and include a mixture of expert briefings, discussions, and hands-on approaches, with workshops on data, visualisation, and tools and techniques for data mining. The main idea behind the boot camps is to build engagement and collaboration between journalists, doctors, data researchers, and policy makers among others.

For our forthcoming boot camp in Northeast India, for example, we have invited technologists, public health professionals, and a top cop to talk about citizen, health and crime data, and how to build collaboration for research and storytelling around the data in the region.

At the boot camps, we don’t fret about stories much. The focus is on building engagement. That is what has made these boot camps different and popular. In the last three years we have conducted the data camps in nine Asian countries and today our the boot camps are recognised as a pioneering collaborative initiative in Asia.

Can you give concrete examples of bootcamps and their outcomes?

The boot camps have been full of discoveries. The intersection of people from scientific and medical fraternity and journalism has opened up interesting points of engagement and created a wealth of resources, skill sets and knowledge. Over 1000 faculty members and Asian journalists from over 400 national, international, and regional news organisations have participated in these boot camps. Some of them became data journalists and fact-checkers. Some of them broke stories, conducted cross-border data collaborations, and a few of them won research grants and global fellowships.

The camps also opened new career opportunities for other professionals. A young Indian doctor, an anaesthesiologist who worked with us on health data, wrote individual stories to show corrupt practices in hospitals. Her work with us helped her to secure a fellowship in the US and she is keen to continue her writing.

Given the pioneering work, in 2016, the boot camp initiative was awarded with prestigious British Medical Journal award, considered as the Oscars in medicine, for promoting data transparency in Asia. More recently the Australian government collaborated with us to establish three international health fellowships for Indian editors. Collaborative journalism takes many forms. For us it also meant working with scientists at one of India’s premier scientific research institutes to visualise complex scientific data for public engagement.

The participants’ feedback on the boot camps has also been overwhelmingly positive, and many ask for more such opportunities.

What kinds of challenges have there been?

One of the biggest challenges was to bring journalists, data scientists, doctors, and policy makers together in different Asian countries. To many of us journalists, doctors and scientists are strangers in our midst. To scientists and doctors, journalists are troublemakers. To the majority of us, data is a still a foreign country. There were many barriers to engagement and it took us some time to explore how professionals from different backgrounds might begin a conversation and maybe even work together in mutually beneficial ways. In the process, we discovered some of the frameworks within which we can build collaboration between journalists and other professionals.

There were also challenges related to finances and logistics. We had a small team and we were conducting boot camps in different parts of Asia. I remember that for a boot camp in Malaysia, we were not even able to do reconnaissance due to limited resources. But what really helped us was that so many friends and networks supported the initiatives. Once people saw meaning in these interactions, they came forward

For example, in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, our boot camp was facilitated by Dr KM Srinivasa Gowda, who was leading India’s largest bone-marrow registry campaign. While Bollywood star, columnist and data enthusiast Prakash Belawadi helped us to curate the camp, Kiran-Shaw, a pioneer of the biotechnology industry in India joined and led the discussion about how watchdog journalists and scientists can work together. Once we have creative people in the room, good things happen.

How do you plan to develop this format further?

As the collaboration is growing we face a number of questions. What more can this new kind of collaboration between journalists, data scientists, doctors, and policy makers do to support new information sharing platforms? Can we replicate a similar model of collaboration for other disciplines? Who else could join and how can we scale for growth?

We don’t have all the answers yet. However, what we see is an explosion in information and growth in data faster than ever before. There is very high level of data to analyse, and there is a greater collective clamouring for information, for truth, for accountability in Asian countries. Making sense of this data will create lot of opportunities for collaboration, and the future potential for increased collaborative research and journalism is enormous.

People are excited about big data and technology — what can we do with virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, personalisation content, bots, the future of mobile, and so on. Though technology certainly empowers, it’s not so useful when you don’t have people who understand it or can build and implement appropriate strategy. That is why we journalists and newsroom leaders need to collaborate with deep subject matter experts now more than ever.

We journalists spend too much time talking to each other. It is time that we talk and build collaborations with professionals from other disciplines to explore new audiences, new ways of storytelling and business models to make our journalism more meaningful, more powerful, and more impactful.