We’re going to start this feature with a question, what is #ZoomIn all about? Well dear reader, it’s about people. More specifically, it’s about innovative people! People who do things beyond the ordinary or the expected, creating solutions and methods that are so simple in their complexity… The fact that we happen to have people like these within our reach in our very own co-working space isn’t a coincidence!
This month, we’re shining the light on Catherine Gicheru’s character, Country Lead for Code for Kenya, the local chapter of the pan-African data journalism and civic technology initiative, Code for Africa. Catherine has “always been a journalist” meaning that she’s used to being the one reporting, rather than being the one reported on, “I don’t like putting my life out there” she told me, “I like to leave a little bit of mystique”. Despite the fact that she has a tendency of being more of a self-described wallflower, she accepted to let us get her a little bit of attention. Now Catherine has always been a character that intrigued the members in our Ngong Rd space, her dreads and cap always making her appearance quite striking, here’s our chance to unravel this enigma of a woman.
First things first, I wanted to know her background, what was the place that moulded her into the woman she is today? I was happy to hear that she hails from our very own Nairobi, the throbbing heart of Kenya. She’s no short of love for the city, as you can read here. Have a look to see why you shouldn’t be either! As for the path she took in life, here’s the story. “I’ve always been a journalist, since my very beginning” she starts. When Catherine started her career, women in journalism weren’t common-place, and having a position that demanded so much presence and self-assertion wasn’t easy. Nonetheless, she drew strength and courage from an abundant source, and I wanted to know what the source was.
Here’s what she told me; “I was raised with that sense of confidence to ask questions, my mum was in the first class of the girls who went to Alliance girls, she’s a very strong independent woman, very strong. We were brought up being told that there’s nothing we cannot do. I used that when I was first going to the newsroom, there was too much ‘macho macho’, too much testosterone surrounding me, but I went ahead and did stuff that people didn’t think a woman should do, and I had the support of my siblings and my parents. I had to prove something, not only to them, but I had to prove to myself that I could hack it.”
“The evolution of media for me was from the day we were using a typewriter, to huge computers, and now we’ve been reduced to these laptops” she says as she points to the Macbook in front of her. Though times have been ever-changing the things used to be done, Catherine wanted to make one thing clear, “the job may have evolved, but my role as a good journalist is not going to change. People will still want to read good stories, factual stories, they need someone who is giving them information, where an issue has been interrogated to death.” That’s who Catherine is, an interrogator, the one who asks the tough questions first and isn’t afraid of the repercussions.
“There’s a lot of noise out there”- noise being the constant stream of information that we constantly get bombarded with – “and journalists are the people who can cut through the noise, and tell you what are the issues you should be worried about, the ones that you should question. Good journalism goes straight to the heart of the problem, and explains it.” Catherine’s voice was firm, her statements as clear as her passion for her work was obvious. “As a journalist, all you have is your name and rep. When you have the courage to stand up, to say what you know is right, to not let yourself be compromised in any way, that’s what you’ll take to the bank.”
The evolution of media wasn’t something that only Catherine needed to get used to, but something that the whole entire journalism industry had to adapt to if it was going to stay relevant! Relevancy being key in journalism, I wondered how the industry handled it, so I took advantage of her knowledge. “Back in the 80s man, when we had to write in-between the lines, we used to sell newspapers in the 300-400 thousands! Now that has gone way down, so we needed to think, how do we change our business? How do we stay relevant in a place where people find it easier to touch this (she lifts up her phone with her right hand) or this (she points to the paper to her left).” Well it turns out, technology was as much an opportunity as it was an opponent. “Journalism no longer means sitting in different corners, it means sitting opposite a techie the way I am now. The solution to keeping the journalism business afloat, is turning to technology.”
I was fascinated, and saw the chance to move the conversation into what Code for Africa does, though I asked her to be sparing on little clueless me with the tech jargon. “Code for Africa is a pan-african federation of data journalism and civic tech labs. We work with media and civil society to use tech to provide citizens with actionable information.” This organization is a perfect example of how reporters and techies can come together to make beautiful changes to the world. “We’re here to give people a position or a platform where they can express their wishes, and their demands. We don’t want to help only individuals, we also want the media to work with us to develop tools or platforms that they can use to make better news. We’re showing media how they can apply technology and use data to contextualize their stories, to find trends in them. It’s helping journalists like me become better at their jobs.”
She continues, her eyes shining with pride, “we want to allow citizens to interact with their governments, and provide them with the ability to say what they think or what they want. We give them actionable information, so that they can at least choose how they want to react to the truth.”
We center in on Nairobi to think of examples of information that people could use. “Some people say the water we’re drinking is crap, I don’t know, let’s free up that info. Apparently our air quality sensors aren’t working, let’s make the truth available.” At the end of the day, as much as Code for Kenya can do to free up information, it’s up to citizens to use it. “This kind of data isn’t just useful to get people to write stories, but also to get people to take action… It can give them the backing they need to go and confront the authorities, or stand up and sue the culprit of all this negligence.”
You might have heard of a few of Code for Kenya’s initiatives. Have you been encouraged to vote but didn’t know where to register? You might have (or should) have checked out GotToVote. Wanted to report a doctor you thought was a fake? You probably came across DodgyDoctors. Wanted to go learn how public finance was being used (or misused)? You must have sifted through PesaCheck’s database! “The constitutional right to vote…” Catherine concludes, “…doesn’t give us the right to be stupid, no, we have to be responsible”, and so we shall be! Let’s take advantage of Code for Africa’s work, and the fact that we are in the age of information, to stand up and together say “no” to what is unfair and unjust.
Stay tuned to see who our #ZoomIn candidate will be! And check out these others, to see all the other awesome and innovative people that the Nairobi Garage houses.