When Canadian journalists talk about their country’s Arctic region, it’s not long before the conversation pivots to raw numbers. Take, for example, food prices in Nunavut, the country’s northernmost territory: $105 for a case of water, $28 for a head of cabbage and $55 for a box of infant formula. Meanwhile, a full 70 percent of households in the same region are classified as “food insecure” – eight times Canada’s national average. And as recently as 2005, the yearly disparity between salaries of nonindigenous and indigenous workers across the Inuit Nunangat region climbed as high as $43,378.
Another noteworthy figure is 9,000. That’s the approximate cost, in Canadian dollars, of airfare for journalists hoping to report on some of the north’s most remote corners.
Making sense of these numbers – indicators of how crucial reporting on Canada’s north is, as well as how difficult it’s becoming – was the focus of Weathering the News, The Center for Investigative Reporting’s most recent TechRaking event in Toronto on May 20. Produced in collaboration with the News Lab at Google, The Canadian Press and TWG, the event brought together about 70 journalists for a daylong discussion of data-driven reporting and its potential applications in one of North America’s least accessible regions.
— The Canadian Press (@TheCdnPress) May 20, 2015
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“The issues up there, as you know, are huge issues,” said Stephen Meurice, editor in chief of The Canadian Press, during his opening remarks. Because journalists face a variety of obstacles such as shrinking budgets, sparse infrastructure and unfamiliar social customs, one of the country’s largest territories remains one of its most unexamined.
“There’s not a whole lot of in-depth reporting on the north, but there is a great appetite for that reporting,” he said.
The day’s first panel addressed challenges reporters face when traveling to the north and how new technology might aid the newsgathering process. Edward Struzik, an author and frequent contributor at Yale Environment 360, spoke alongside Andrew Lundy, The Canadian Press’ digital director, and Kathleen Martens, a contributor at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.
Reporting on the Arctic, Struzik said, is not getting easier.
“I’m racking my brains: How can I connect with people in the north?” he said. “I’m spinning my wheels here a little bit. It’s becoming really difficult.”
Social media can aid access, Martens said. During a recent reporting trip, she used Facebook to notify one indigenous community that she’d be looking to conduct interviews. Word of her visit spread so quickly that the next morning, she found a line of residents snaking down the street outside her hotel.
Still, a lone Facebook message can only get you so far. Digging in on some of the north’s biggest challenges – suicide, poverty, unemployment – requires in-person reporting. And though Canadian scholars have documented many of the north’s public health issues exhaustively, the rigor of journalism lags far behind that of academic inquiry.
“The north has been studied to death,” Martens said. “You just need to go up there.”
The day’s second panel, led by Toronto Star investigative reporter Robert Cribb, raised a number of questions about Canada’s open flow of data: Should journalists embrace as inevitable an antagonistic relationship with government institutions? Should they aim for more collaboration? What role might private companies have in the acquisition and organization of data? And, finally, will the Canadian government see value in transparency over the coming years?
— Phillip Smith (@phillipadsmith) May 20, 2015
“It is actually not impossible to have one part of the government do something very open and interesting while another part of the government is trying to clamp down,” said David Eaves, a Canadian open data expert. Therefore, the key to creating a culture of open data in Canada is to build a “big tent” where journalists and government officials can work together to make public records more available.
Ray Sharma, executive managing partner of Extreme Venture Partners, took a different approach. “We need to commercialize this data,” he said, adding that several venture capital-backed startups already have moved into the data space, collating and disseminating information that government bodies don’t have the wherewithal to organize. “It will be done quicker by the commercial community,” he said.
Sharma’s suggestion – to privatize data collected from things like infrastructure mapping – rattled Cribb, along with many other journalists in the room. The data that journalists possess, he said, “are public because (we) fought for them” – not thanks to private intermediaries.
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In the afternoon, participants had a chance to break into groups and brainstorm solutions to the Arctic’s challenges as part of a three-hour “design sprint.” In the spirit of the morning’s discussions, each group zeroed in on one issue that journalists or Arctic communities face.
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The winning concept was “Ice Box,” a proposed community-generated database that would use crowdsourcing technology to track inflated food prices in remote Arctic regions. Anyone with an Internet connection could access Ice Box to determine whether their local grocer was charging too much for already expensive commodities – and to upload photos of the best deals. Members of the community could view the data, and journalists could use it to hunt for leads about price gouging.
The overall goal of Ice Box would be a greater level of competition and accountability among grocers, said the Toronto Star’s David Weisz, one of the project’s creators. The tool “essentially shames retailers into justifying their prices,” he said. “It’s also scalable. If this proves successful in the Arctic, why not take it to India?”
In the coming months, CIR will work with Weisz and the Ice Box team to prototype the tool and integrate it into communities impacted by food price gouging. The goal, Weisz said, will be to “tap into the existing frustrations that have been documented well.” By harnessing local support and creating an accessible (and inexpensive) outlet for journalists, the tool could help demystify Canada’s enigmatic north.
— CIR (@CIRonline) May 20, 2015