Innovator Insights – InfoNile
Fathm’s Innovator Insights series explores the bold steps taken by individuals and organisations seeking to increase value and improve quality in journalism, communications, and information sharing and identifies what we can learn from them.
Q. Can you briefly describe what InfoNile is?
InfoNile is a geojournalism platform and cross-border network of more than 500 environmental journalists in the Nile Basin. We use data journalism and multimedia formats to shed light on climate and environmental crises and working solutions. We are a flagship project of Water Journalists Africa, a not-for-profit media organisation that has a membership of over 700 journalists reporting on water in 50 countries across the African continent.
Our approach involves identifying cross-border environmental data and stories, training and mentoring journalists in data and science journalism, and supporting journalists to produce in-depth investigative stories. We link journalists and scientists to report cross-border investigations and interactive maps, published in various media outlets in the five Nile Basin languages, as well as on InfoNile.
Q. What inspired you to create InfoNile?
The Nile River, the world’s longest river, supports millions of people in eleven countries in Africa, but is highly threatened by climate change, population and economic growth, transboundary hydropolitics, and the building of large-scale dams that threaten to reduce water availability for countries highly dependent on the Nile’s waters – just to name a few.
At the same time, there is a critical gap between the data and information being collected on environmental issues and its translation to public knowledge through the media. Opinionated and nationalistic media reports have sometimes fueled water conflicts in the region.
The problem is both on the side of the researchers and the media. Since 2011, we have worked with more than 700 journalists in Africa who report about water issues through our network Water Journalists Africa. According to these journalists, many media houses in the Nile Basin do not invest in environmental or data journalism due to the view that such stories do not attract audiences or advertisers. The journalists themselves also lack skills in science and data journalism, and media houses lack funds to commission in-depth investigations about water issues. Scientists and researchers also struggle to communicate their findings to the media or general public.
This means that many transboundary water and environmental stories remain surface-level and based on politics and rumours. The public is thus left with a lack of information and awareness about the problems affecting them or possible solutions to pursue, in light of increasing water stress and climate change.
Q. Why did you need to create something new in order to reach and engage with your chosen audience?
The way people consume content is rapidly changing and very dependent on technology. In the past, many people received their news and updates through traditional media like televisions, radios and newspapers. These still work in some areas, but an urban audience is not waiting to watch the news at the top of the hour. An urban, information-thirsty audience is looking to stay updated with timely and in depth content when they need it.
This is why at InfoNile, we want to reach our audience where they are. Currently, everyone who can use a smartphone, is using a smartphone. With studies showing that the most preferred way of communication today is WhatsApp, we decided to reach our audience using an integrated targeted approach. We publish our content on our website, social media channels and most recently on WhatsApp.
Our Mobile Magazines for WhatsApp aims to offer our audience multimedia stories and data that they can request to receive through our Chat for Impact service.
Our audience is also one that asks follow up questions and desires interaction. Our Mobile Magazines for WhatsApp will allow us to interact with our audience personally as they interact with our content.
We will be launching our Chat for Impact WhatsApp service in January 2022.
Q. What barriers to success have you overcome and what barriers still remain?
At InfoNile, we believe in the power of collaborative reporting to achieve more impact from our stories. For the past 5 years, we have been promoting collaborations between journalists and media houses, especially between different platforms like newspapers and radio stations and between media in different countries. This has been challenging as the media sector has traditionally relied on competition and “owning” exclusive tips and stories. However, we have managed to grow a network of journalists and media house partners that are open to collaborations and cross-publishing content. We have been able to publish many high-quality, data-based stories through these collaborations, and we are starting to see the media houses becoming encouraged to do more of this work even beyond the InfoNile support. Interest in data journalism, science journalism and environmental reporting has also been growing in the region and among our networks.
We are still struggling with the gaps between journalists and scientists, especially the distrust between the two groups. If scientists’ research and data has been misrepresented by journalists in the past, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t want to keep on sharing it with journalists. However, we need to address the knowledge and trust gap on all sides if we are to increase evidence-based journalism on some of the most critical issues of our planet, like climate change and loss of biodiversity. Another challenge is the overall lack of resources for “public service journalism”: They are costly stories for sure, but which have an enormous impact in the society when media houses choose to invest in their production.
Q. What changes would you like to see in the industry that would make innovation easier?
We would like to see media houses in the Nile Basin put more emphasis on and resources into environmental and climate stories, and increased collaborations among journalists and media houses. We would also like to see new media business models that support public service journalism especially on issues like environmental sustainability and climate change, which are becoming some of the most critical and defining issues of our generation.
Q. How did working with Fathm and Falmouth university through the Reporting Earth programme help you?
The Reporting Earth programme provided us with a grant to develop a prototype idea for a new way of reporting climate. Our prototype idea was the Mobile Magazines designed for and disseminated by WhatsApp.
This, for us, was much more than the grant, because the program also included mentorship sessions with Fathm. It was during these sessions that we were able to clearly visualise our idea into the viable product we have now. It was also these sessions that enabled us to clearly map our audience and their needs.
This mentorship also introduced us to other industry players like Turn.io who are actually our service provider for our WhatsApp Chatbot.
We are really privileged to have been selected to participate in the Reporting Earth activities.
Q. What plans do you have for the future of InfoNile?
We’re super excited to officially launch a new platform in 2022 called NileWell, which will enable journalists and environmental scientists in the Nile Basin to easily find and connect with each other. We’re also exploring multi-language mobile magazines to share our stories and data in a mobile-friendly format. We’re developing innovations and collaborations between journalists, scientists, and activist groups to increase the reach and impact of our data-based stories. We’ll also be continuing with our core model of training and supporting journalists in data and environmental storytelling, and producing cross-border investigations around critical issues related to water and environment in the region. Keep an eye out on InfoNile.org and NileWell.org for our opportunities, and sign up to receive our newsletter here!
Q. What do you think other people can learn from your experiences? Can you offer three top tips?
1. It is more beneficial to collaborate than to compete primarily when working on transboundary resources.
2. It is possible for researchers/scientists, and journalists to rebuild trust to enable them to work together and co-produce knowledge.
3. Journalism requires credible data to tell more analytical and more comprehensive stories.
InfoNile was a Reporting Earth bursary winner and was supported by Fathm to develop an initial idea into a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) over a series of bespoke design labs. These labs helped frame the project in the context of stakeholders, goals and realistic first deliverables. InfoNile were also provided by coaching ahead of their MVP pitching sessions at conferences hosted by Falmouth University and the Eden Project.
If you are interested in running similar Labs to develop products or processes in your organisation then get in touch for a chat.