Using data journalism to advance gender equality: A conversation with Rosemary Okello-Orlale  

A spotlight interview with 2021 Data Fellow Rosemary Okello-Orlale (Kenya cohort) 

AP: Can you describe your background and past work experience, and what made you passionate about data journalism? 

RO: I started my career as a journalist, wrote development stories, founded the Africa Woman and Child Feature Service, and worked for the Ford Foundation where I was central to the conceptualization and successful execution of the 2013 presidential debate. These experiences have made me recognized as an expert in the field of communication, media, and gender. I am also passionate about creating African narratives through data storytelling.    

For more than 18 years, I have been focusing on development journalism and exploring the intersection between media, gender, and development journalism. I am currently working with Strathmore Business School as the Director of the Africa Media Hub whose mission is to enhance access to quality, relevant, accessible, timely data, business and financial information needed to allow governments and decision-makers to extend services into communities. My work is focused on harnessing data revolution and reshaping the Africa narrative through creative communication and social justice storytelling. 

AP: You’ve worked on so many gender issues for so many years. What’s one of the main issues facing women and girls in Kenya at the moment? 

RO: One area where women are facing challenges is in leadership. This therefore calls for a transformative shift in governance structure where the government needs to focus on gender disparities in the executive, legislative, judiciary branches, private sector, and also the media. Covid-19 has helped in shedding light on many issues like gender-based violence, women’s security, women’s roles in caregiving, and the safety of girls. Even though the media reported high cases of GBV, the issues facing women and girls in Kenya during the Covid-19 pandemic have always affected women most and many women also face violence through social media.  

AP: What is the general perception around these issues, and are they based on data? 

RO: Even though data can help in bringing out gender issues by using facts and figures, culture and traditional practices strongly influence how men and women think about themselves within their gender roles. This latter affects women in education, decision-making, work environment and generally within communities. Therefore, having a comprehensive data policy coupled with proper skills can help in understanding what challenges women and girls face and enable decision-makers to make interventions where they are needed most.  Developing a gender and data policy can help in shaping how data is collected, used, and analyzed to inform decision-making.  

Gaining extra skills on gender and data analytics through the Tableau Fellowship has shown the Fellows that there are better ways to analyze data, especially when it comes to gender issues. Skillful use of data and understanding data can make a difference in addressing gender inequality at national, regional, and global levels. 

AP: How does data visualization help communicate these numbers into something understandable? 

RO: Unless we can make someone understand the story we are trying to tell, then we will not make an impact as a data storyteller. Understanding, for instance, the skills that Tableau can bring and communicating that in ordinary language for an ordinary woman, we might make data reachable for many women. Numbers are important but they create an impact when they are grounded into stories and visualized.   

AP: Is there anything else you’d like to add that wasn’t reflected in the questions so far? 

RO: Having experts that understand data in relation to gender issues is going to create a space for gender mainstreaming for various organizations and ensure that certain policies are implemented. These skills are not ordinary skills, and the time in this fellowship has brought a new dimension to my study of gender issues. It is not like any other avenue of analyzing data. When we create visualizations, it is a deliberate choice to use certain diagrams and charts. As a data professional, it is useful to understand what the best visualization is for certain types of data or communicating certain messages. Whoever has been trained to use these skills needs to have the space to utilize them and communicate with more people using this platform.  

Rosemary Okello-Orlale is a well-recognized communication, media and gender expert who finds interest in creating African narratives through data storytelling. Currently she is the Director of the Africa Media Hub, Strathmore University Business School whose mission is to increase expert knowledge amongst business and finance journalists in the coverage of economic issues using data visualization. She is on the Advisory Board of the Strathmore Data Analytics Centre (SADAC) and the founder of the African Woman and Child Feature Service and the Kenya Media Council.   

How can data amplify the impact of journalism? A conversation with Marvel Powerson 

A spotlight interview with 2021 Data Fellow Marvel Powerson (Kenya cohort) 

AP: Could you describe your background and past work experience, and what made you passionate about data journalism? 

MP: I have been very passionate about women’s rights and gender issues for a long time. I’ve worked in radio and print, and I’m currently a communications consultant and freelance journalist. I am also an actress and social media manager for a campaign on renewable energy.  

I like to work on issues of women’s empowerment, which cut across many different sectors. For instance, my current work in energy focuses on women, and as we know, climate change and energy issues affect women and girls very differently than they affect men and boys. The data angle came in because I like to tell stories with numbers. What is not counted is not accounted for. And I like the clarity in numbers and that data-based decisions are made with specific expected outcomes.  

AP: Do you find that basing your stories on data makes them more convincing to a larger general audience? 

MP: I believe so. For instance, in Kenya, there are many disputes over borders and cattle and in the process, women are often assaulted. Having specific numbers of women who experience these injustices personalizes the issue. Without numbers, people assume that it’s something they can brush off, and they become desensitized to these injustices. Journalists do their best to emphasize that even one death or assault is one too many to prevent people from succumbing to this desensitization.    

AP: In the same vein, when you incorporate data visualizations into your stories, are they useful for your audience?  

MP: I’m finding that organizations like to use numbers, but we use data that is so technical that readers cannot actually understand it. Our typical audience is people in government who are making policies, and many of them do not understand complex graphs. The most useful graphs are the ones that do not have too much detail and just break a point down by gender to show the disparities. The common person who is making decisions is not a statistician or data person. One of the things that needs to change is education and increasing skills for reading statistics and data, but in the meantime, we need to create graphics that are digestible and understandable for someone who is not well-versed in data.  

Marvel Powerson is a communications consultant and actress living and working in Kenya. She has been a radio producer and presenter for an international radio station. Additionally, her journey in communications has seen her engage in resource mobilization and public relations fields. She writes about women’s empowerment and gender equality. She likes to enable the voice of women and girls who otherwise are not be heard on issues by critical policy makers and legislators. Her articles speak truth to power, be it in the development world or government. To this end, she has received story grants to write in area of specialization from the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK). She is an active member of The African Women’s Development Communications Network, FEMNET and Kenya Climate Change Working Group (KCCWG). She has also acted in short movies and TV series in Kenya.   

How can data journalists apply an intersectional perspective? A conversation with Aarushee Shukla 

A spotlight interview with 2021 Data Fellow Aarushee Shukla (India cohort) 

Could you describe your background and what made you passionate about data journalism? 

I am an independent researcher and development practitioner working at the intersection of gender and development. I am an economics graduate and a post-graduate in social work with a specialization in women-centered practices. I completed my post-graduation in 2020, and since then I have been working on looking at gender issues with an intersectional feminist lens. I am particularly interested in bringing individuals from the periphery into the center. Additionally, the center of my feminist philosophy is demystifying and democratizing information and knowledge, be it jargon or feminist literature and contextualizing it to the local context. I write articles, take up research projects, and most recently, host a television series called Critique and Create. On the show, we discuss topics that are considered frivolous by the mainstream media or are just not discussed at all.  

You have been focused on intersectionality and decolonization in development. What needs to change to make the development field more intersectional and inclusive? 

Intersectionality is a huge term that has a very basic meaning, which is that you are considering each and every person that is a part of the group for the program you are creating. The program is doomed from the start if the definition of intersectionality is not agreed upon and comprehensive. This is why it is important to have a universal definition where people’s different needs are heard and addressed. We also need to create the space for people to tell their own stories instead of telling stories for them.  

It’s so easy for us to say that we should redistribute power, but it’s another matter altogether to actually do it. Even in Parliament, it is easy to say that some male members should give up their seats for more equal representation, but those members of course do not want to do that. And I have to ask myself, would I be willing to give up my seat? As individuals, we need to hold ourselves accountable at all times. If we start doing this in practice, we will be able to achieve a lot of things that we want to in theory.  

Is there a way that you’ve incorporated intersectionality into data visualizations? How do you convey this concept into something tangible? 

Honestly, I have struggled. In particular, accessibility is an issue when collecting data using online surveys, as these interfaces typically do not have screen readers, voice commands, etc. that would enable people with disabilities to participate. To overcome this, I speak with them on the phone and record their answers myself, but this is an incomplete and onerous process. Additionally, I originally wanted to incorporate as many languages spoken in India as possible. However, due to constraints, I had to keep the form in English and Hindi. I tried to capture intersectionality through collecting demographic data on each survey participant and create filters in Tableau across religion, caste, gender, and family income to see variation. Some major takeaways from this fellowship are that I’ll never compromise on the accessibility part and always make sure that the intersectionality aspect is there in my work.  

Aarushee Shukla holds an M.A. in Social Work with specialization in Women Centered Practices from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is currently a Project Fellow for Articulating Women: Interrogating Intersectionality: Empowering Women through Critical Engagements. She is a freelance intersectional gender journalist and her articles have been featured in The Telegraph and SheThePeople. Her research interests lie in the intersection of gender with macro-level development indicators, feminist economics, policy as praxis and gender-disaggregated analytics. 

Using data journalism to promote gender equality with Surbhi Bhatia 

A spotlight interview with 2021 Data Fellow Surbhi Bhatia (India cohort) 

Surbhi Bhatia is a researcher who tells stories with numbers and charts. She discusses the power of data visualization and some of the challenges facing data journalists and gender advocates, as well as some ways to address these challenges. She’s been a data journalist at Mint, the business daily of Hindustan Times, and has worked with the Finance Research Group, Mumbai. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Delhi and a Master’s degree in public policy from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.   

AP: To start, could you describe your background and past experience? 

SB: My training is in economics and public policy. I’ve been a researcher with the Finance Research Group, Mumbai, and a data-journalist with Mint, the business daily of Hindustan Times. Most of my research and writing cuts across the domains of public policy, academia and journalism.  
AP: You mentioned you enjoy telling stories with numbers and charts, so could you talk about your key audiences, and why data visualization is a powerful tool? 

SB: The key audience for any graph, visualization or news article, I believe, should be a ten-year-old kid. If through my work, I can simplify something as complex as budget allocations, or trade deficits, to that age group, half my work is done. For the other half, the story should speak directly to its stakeholders, like, the government, corporate and financial institutions, civil society, and finally, the citizens.  

Data visualisation is powerful as it makes use of our visual memory. When you see – you remember.  It organises vast amounts of data on multiple spreadsheets, into one key trend, story or insight, which is beyond what our minds can comprehend from data in its raw form. For information to have the potential to correct biases and influence a person’s view, it must stay in the reader’s memory. Interactive tools like Tableau and Datawrapper can imprint that information on our minds for a long time. 

AP: So with that, what are the biggest challenges you face as a data journalist and gender advocate? 

SB: The world of data and information has exploded in the last decade. We have access to a lot more data today. However, granular and disaggregated data still remains a rare sight. This deficiency is a blind-spot for policy action. For instance (and I quote this example often), knowing that x% of children are out-of-school may elicit a different policy response than knowing that y% of girls and z% of boys are out-of-school. If you don’t measure something, you can’t manage it, and translate it to a policy action. Another challenge is that datasets are often unstructured, outdated and unreliable. I feel that tech and collaborative projects may be able to resolve these issues. Another constant challenge being a data-journalist, is to keep reminding oneself that the data-points on our graphs are real individuals, not mere trends. 

AP: How do you think these data challenges can be addressed? 

SB: I believe that digitisation and tech-based solutions can solve the problem of making structured data accessible to everyone. Access to clean and organised data removes barriers, ensuring anyone can perform an analysis. To get there, we’ll have to build an ecosystem that supports data-collection and dissemination with tools that minimise human error. It needs infrastructure, skills, training and sensitivity, to maintain and communicate granular data, responsibly.