“Why are you going to Africa?”

I’ve heard this question a lot in the past few days. So, let me try to explain.

sunset Masai Mara

Sunset over the savannah in Masai Mara, a famous park reserve in Kenya. Gorgeous.

Angela Sevin via Compfight

The short answer: I’m going to Nairobi, Kenya, to conduct research (“fieldwork”) on three case studies at the intersection of journalism and open source / hacking / computer programming.

The longer answer: This work figures into the ongoing research that I’m doing with Nikki Usher on the rise of programmers and programming in the world of news and information — a book project we call “Hacking the News.” (Hey, we even have a working logo, designed by one of my research assistants, Jeff Hargarten.)

These three cases that I plan to study are positioned at this nexus of news and code in different ways:

(1) Ushahidi (Swahili for “witness”) is a non-profit tech organization that famously has developed a free and open-source platform for crowdsourcing crisis information across media channels and visualized in different ways — perhaps most notably via “crowdmaps” like these. (Incidentally, Ushahidi was an early Knight News Challenge grantee, so I interviewed founder Ory Okolloh during the course of my dissertation work.) The Ushahidi platform has gained all kinds of attention (Clay Shirky talks about it prominently), but for my purposes it’s interesting because it has elements of participatory news, user-generated content, and a civic information mission to go with a good dose of open-source and technological activism — so, a useful study of media + code. Ushahidi’s team is spread throughout the globe, but its heart and soul is in Kenya, including its headquarters at …

(2) the iHub, which describes itself as “Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community [and] an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers, designers and researchers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part vector for investors and VCs and part incubator.” That about sums it up, and should explain why I’m interested in observing and participating in this space — particularly in meeting with hackers (et al.) who are developing projects with a news/media focus. Why are they interested in news/media/journalism?

(3) Last, but certainly not least, I’m excited to learn more about the newly launched Code4Kenya initiative, co-sponsored by the World Bank and the African Media Initiative. This program embeds developer “fellows” in media organizations, including newsrooms. What’s interesting about this case is how it blends an emphasis on open data and coding technologies with the context of media and journalism. As one fellow (see them all) puts it on his LinkedIn profile: “I am embedded inside a host organisation and knighted with the ground shifting task of changing hack journalism. Incorporating developing applications that will increase public data awareness and disseminating to the citizens as well as improving data journalism skills and approach.” These fellows are being coordinated through a startup incubator called 88mph, which should be an interesting site for study all its own!

From the website for 88mph, a startup accelerator (a la Y Combinator) that "makes investments in early stage mobile-web companies targeting the African market; focusing purely on ideas with potential to scale across Africa."


Oh, and in addition to all this, there’s a new Nairobi chapter of Hacks/Hackers. Hacks/Hackers — i.e., “hacks” for journalists, “hackers” for technologists” — is a grassroots global network that obviously, in its very name, captures the intersection of journalism and hacking, and so it has been an important case that I’ve been studying during the past year.

They say that Nairobi is becoming the Silicon Valley of east Africa, and I’m excited to see why. So, 11 days, 3 cases to study, and 1 amazing trip ahead!

(I should add: This research — like previous fieldwork in London at Mozilla Festival and in newsrooms and at hackathons in New York, Chicago and elsewhere — is being funded by a generous grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research at the University of Minnesota. Thank you, UMN!)