By Kuek Ser Kuang Keng

Since the start of pandemic in early 2020, data-driven reporting on COVID-19 has gone through several phases. Initially, most of it focused on the pandemic itself: the progress and trends of infections. Later, it was about vaccination rates and efficacy.

That is not all you can do with data. Moving into the second part of the pandemic, data can measure the changes and effects of the virus on our world, shed light on flaws within our current systems and suggest long-term solutions to prevent or mitigate the next disaster.

This was the focus in the COVID-19 and Public Health Data Storytelling workshop series supported by Google News Initiative and organised by WAN-IFRA APAC in June 2021.

In three online sessions, I shared with 283 journalists from 46 media publications across Southeast Asia the principles and practical skills in harnessing the power of data to strengthen their reporting on both the pandemic and related public health issues.

Collect and monitor data

One of the key takeaways from my workshop is that journalists need to start collecting and monitoring data for post-pandemic investigations.

In many Asian countries where governments only share data on an annual basis, the release of 2020 data has begun. This allows the journalists to quantify and measure the impact of the pandemic and answer important questions like who enriched themselves by taking advantage of the pandemic?

For example, many governments were given leeway to make pandemic-related purchases and approve policies. However, journalists in Brazil have exposed irregularities and corruption in the purchase of respirators by the state through data collection and analysis. Similar data-driven investigations in Nigeria found that health supplies used to fight COVID-19 were bought at inflated prices.

Measure impact on the less fortunate

Data can also help journalists monitor the recovery of vulnerable and underprivileged communities that were hit hardest during the pandemic and the effectiveness of various government aid and recovery programs. Some questions that can lead to quality reporting include:

What happened to the poorest families in our society six to 12 months after the pandemic?
What happened to children who lost their parents to the virus?
Did government assistance reach those who really need it?
Did someone take advantage of pandemic policies or programmes?

Track inequality

If the pandemic has widened the gap between classes and amplified the inequality in your country, it is very likely that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout will follow the same path.

This is another opportunity for journalists to expose wrongdoings and call for amends using data. One good example is this report by a local Toronto magazine that used maps to show how Ontario’s vaccine strategy has missed the most vulnerable areas of Toronto.

Preventing or preparing for Disease X

Another question explored during the workshops was the prevention of and preparation for the next outbreak. Although the art of prediction does not usually fall within the expertise of journalists, they can still inform the public by monitoring indicators linked to outbreaks e.g. wildlife trade and deforestation.

Put new data skills into immediate use

In addition to story ideas and data reporting recipes, the workshop introduced participants to the best practices and online tools for data visualisation.

Some participants put their newly acquired skills into use almost immediately. Among them are journalists from Malaysian Chinese language newspaper, Sinchew Daily, which used the online visualization tool, Flourish, to create interactive charts that illustrate the latest Covid-19 situation in Malaysia in a more engaging manner.

About the author: Kuek Ser Kuang Keng is an award-winning digital journalist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the founder of Data-N, a training program that helps journalists to integrate data journalism into daily reporting. Data-N has helped publications like Foreign Policy, BBC World Service, Mediacorp and Malaysiakini to enhance their storytelling with data, visual and interactive components.

With the support of Google Malaysia, he has been conducting regular digital journalism workshops across Malaysia since 2018. Keng is also the competition officer of the Data Journalism Awards, which later became the Sigma Awards – both international awards that recognise outstanding work in the field of data journalism worldwide.

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