–By Krishna Sapkota–


The phrases – open access, open knowledge and open data – are gaining increasingly popularity in the field of development and communications both in the developed as well as in the developing world today. These ideas are believed to wipe out restrictions to access to information and knowledge and thereby contribute to the widening scope of ‘open development’. And, as a critical component of this global movement, data journalism has emerged as a sparkling idea right to explore open development by propelling data-driven journalism practice to the contrary of narrative-based traditional communications systems.


What about Nepal’s current context, is it friendly for advancing open data and data journalism? Nepal’s political, organizational, legal, economic, social, and technical terrain presents a complex environment of opportunities and challenges for the further emergence of open data and data journalism in Nepal. Nepal has successfully promulgated a new federal democratic republic constitution providing ample space for open and transparent society. On one hand, Nepal has a robust civil society and media experienced in advocating for transparency and accountability, with improving technical capacity and emerging government support for openness. However, on the other hand, Nepal has low levels of internet connectivity, high levels of corruption, culture of secrecy within government agencies, strong social hierarchies and limited evidence of demand for open data.


Nepal ranks low on many social and economic indicators and it is unknown how open data could play out in an environment with limited financial resources for data infrastructure and sharing and with high levels of social inequality. Drawing evidence with data/fact is an important ingredient for a healthy opinion and to influence public authorities for better policies and thereby the greater good of the people at large. Nevertheless, presenting narratives rather than data to support a fact or produce a story is still widely practiced in Nepal. “The status of data use in Nepali media is dismal”, says media educator P Kharel, adding, “The organizational culture of data-producing government institutions is not open to sharing data with journalists”. Many journalists take one person’s briefing, or a press release, and write their story based on that without further research or probing into it.


A common criticism is that Nepali media is “event based” and preoccupied with political news, rather than taking an investigative or questioning stance. Referring to the current practice, journalist Gyanu Adhikari says there is a tradition of quoting data, for example, when the Central Bureau of Statistics releases a demographics survey, but no effort is made at all of data mining, or using data to follow up and elaborate on a news story. Media researchers also say data use is still in an experimental phase. For example, some TV channels and online media used data visualizations during the second Constituent Assembly (CA) elections of Nepal to demystify complex election data, but that was abandoned in subsequent events. In the wake of the 2015 earthquake, broadsheet newspapers such as Republica started publishing more info-graphics to visualize aid committed for reconstruction, among other public affairs.


If media performed the role of an intermediary to track the data, connect data with public affairs and simplify data for public understanding, it would bring about a new dimension in modern journalism. Data journalists have recognized that the way data is generated and used is changing. The sheer increase in volume of data means new techniques have become necessary for journalists to extract information and to present them in forms that are easily understood. As a result, a subset of journalism, data journalism, has evolved.


In Data Journalism Handbook, Paul Bradshaw of Birmingham City University states, “Data can be the source of data journalism, or it can be the tool with which the story is told — or it can be both. Like any source, it should be treated with skepticism; and like any tool, we should be conscious of how it can shape and restrict the stories that are created with it.” Developing know-how techniques (skills and knowledge) is needed to use the available data more effectively, understand it and communicating and generating stories based on it can breathe a new life to modern journalism, notes Bibhushan Bista, CEO of Young Innovations, a Nepal-based company that provides innovative solutions in the area of open development. He adds, “To make the media outlets more credible and make reporting more sensible, journalists in Nepal are must to adopt this new perspective of data journalism”.


Nepal is at the beginning of its journey with this exciting new movement, with open datasets being released for the first time. This disclosure of data, made available for anyone to use, for any purpose, at no cost is leading to improved levels of transparency in Nepal.


The challenges however are not less daunting. Among many are lack of disaggregated data and unavailability of data in understandable format, deficit technical skills and know-how to analyze, visualize and present data in more understandable format; traceability of resource flow and breakdown. Likewise, need of comparable and latest data, digital divide and less penetration of internet, authenticity of data are also the glaring challenges constraining data journalism practice in Nepal. Hence, there is still a long way to go for thriving data journalism in the country. Building capacity of the journalists, incubating a tech fellow in a media house to work with journalists, establishing a network of core and interested journalists and techies, and encouraging Nepali journalists to join the international network of techies and journalists working in data-driven journalism are some of the measures required for the growth of this new practice in the country.


With the trusted role of intermediary, media is considered a bridge between the suppliers of data (such as government and donors) and the common people (the receivers of the information and tax payers). The general public does not understand the essence of dense data while journalists develop contents in a way to facilitate their understanding on the issue. It is thus time to spur data journalism practices to maintain media’s watchdog role of keeping vigilance on proper utilization of public money. More importantly, the media’s unique role to create a critical mass to trace spending of public money pledged for the relief and recovery of survivors in the post-earthquake reconstruction can be realized. The time is ripe for this new intervention in Nepali media.


(Source: The National News Agency, RSS)