By Matteo Scannavini
Award-winning data journalist and computer scientist, Jacopo Ottaviani is chief data officer at Code for Africa, the continent’s largest network of civic technology and data journalism labs. Published on Al Jazeera, The Guardian, El País and Der Spiegel, he is co-author of awarded and high-impact projects such as The Migrants’ Files, an international investigation that uncovered the human cost of immigration in Europe, and Mapping Makoko, which put on the map an invisible community in Lagos. We spoke with him about Code for Africa and his experience as a cross-border data journalist.
You became a journalist coming from a technical background. Where did your passion for journalism come from and how you got into the field?
While I was studying computer science in Rome, I realised that I wanted to apply IT to understand the world, collaborating with people from different backgrounds and cultures to solve global problems. I saw computer science as a window into reality and journalism became the first tool I explored to have an impact on it, from a technological perspective.
After my studies and an internship in Berlin, I started working as a freelancer on projects about Africa, traveling thanks to the European Journalism Centre in Ghana, Mozambique and Morocco, where I met Code for Africa for the first time.
Would you introduce Code for Africa through some of its projects?
Code for Africa is a non-profit organization based in Cape Town, Kenya and Nigeria, with a global team of 100+ civic technologists, journalists, developers and designers who collaborate from Africa, Europe and the USA. I joined CfA as an ICFJ Knight Fellow back in 2016, when it was still a startup.
One of our top projects is Mapping Makoko, winner of the data journalism Sigma Awards in 2021. Makoko is a slum in Lagos that was not represented in maps, appearing as a black spot despite its 300,000 inhabitants. With the support of AfricanDRONE, we trained the local community to use drones and map places through open data, and involved journalists to realise multimedia reportages about it.
Other of our projects are OpenAFRICA, one of the biggest portals of open data in the continent, and the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting, a group of newsrooms that we coordinate and support providing technological expertise and training for their inquiries.
Your role as CFA’s Chief Data Officer is to manage multidisciplinary and international teams of journalists, developers, and designers. Is it a challenge to coordinate people coming from multiple cultural and professional backgrounds?
It is not easy. It is a constant exercise of mediation and patience because people with multiple backgrounds can have challenges in understanding each other. But the more you practice it, the more you create what we call hive mind: although we are not in the same room, nor often on the same continent, we manage to synchronise ourselves and achieve our goals. Leadership roles are essential, you must keep the team motivated and remove obstacles, which for instance can be logistic or linguistic.
Your career shows that data journalism is not only deskwork. What do you think about the importance of crossing data analysis and field reporting?
It is fundamental. When we open a spreadsheet, we must keep in mind there are always people behind the numbers. I spend a lot of time at the computer, but I always try to see the reality outside my room. Reportage is a priority for me since I have always loved travelling and telling human stories, one of the reasons I wanted to become a journalist. Data gives you a simplified overview of reality, but spending time with people’s stories allows you to understand their complexity.
Any advice for aspiring data journalists?
Contact me and tell me your story, especially if you want to enter this field. Based on my experience, my main advice is to get your hands dirty with a project: show what kind of problems you can solve and give priority to your project portfolio over your CV.
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