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Sub-Saharan Africa's first Editor's Lab hackathon begins in Cape Town today as 14 teams gather and compete to create news-focussed apps or websites over two days.

The hackathon, organised by the Global Editor's Network (GEN), the African Media Initiative (AMI) and Google, is the culmination of a series of engagements and workshops focussed on digital journalism.

"The idea of this whole process is, firstly, to demonstrate to newsrooms that even small and under resourced newsrooms can do data journalism," AMI's Justin Arenstein told Journalism.co.uk.

"Secondly, even small newsrooms can start building digital and mobile platforms that will resonate with the audience and they can do that with free tools. They don't have to do that with bespoke, proprietary tools; they can use freely available stuff on the net to experiment with."

Arenstein said recent workshops had covered a range of Google tools – attended by "160 to 170 journalists" – followed by a series of brainstorming sessions before teams were chosen for the final event.

"Each team is three people and that includes a journalist, a creative and a developer," Arenstein said, "so we don't just end up with tech toys. We want audience engagement at the end of it."

The teams include large media organisations as well as smaller groups, like the Johannesburg chapter of Hacks/Hackers, a meetup of journalists and technologists. Those from small organisations have "just as sophisticated ideas", said Arenstein.

Teams have been asked to focus on the idea of "active citizenry" as a theme. "So how do you engage audiences to become more active in a social discourse and in setting the political and socio-economic agenda in countries?" he said.

"A lot of the tools are focussing on civic solutions. How do we monitor educational performance and improve on it? And that's pulling on both public data and some of the data that some of the teams are liberating."

The role of technology in African journalism has been on the rise in recent years, but the context in which it has emerged is affecting the nature of the tools and stories for both the reader and journalist.

"Consumers are completely leapfrogging desktops," Arenstein said. "Their first engagement with digital is largely through mobile devices."

Because the majority of the mobile devices in use have a lower screen resolution, digital tools and data journalists focus on pragmatism over visualisation, in contrast to the US and Europe.

"There seems to be a far bigger focus on network analysis," said Arenstein, "on data analysis, and then also on how to visualise complicated relationships, like entity mapping and the kind of things you see intelligence agencies doing. And that's to try to track complex money flows and procurement deals across borders.

"Everything from arms deals through to the state procurement kind of reporting. So those are two examples of how it seems to be slightly different in Africa."

Speaking on why a project like this had not occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa sooner, Arenstein said there were a number of factors, first of which is that many executives at major African media organisations have previously been skeptical of "the digital hype".

"The revenue meltdown that you've had in the UK and US has not yet happened in Africa. So digital penetration hasn't yet reached where it has corroded advertising.

"The second thing is that AMI has for a year and a half been building up demand for some of these innovation processes. So we've been seeing skills, building Hacks/Hackers chapters, building prototypes in partnership with thought-leader newsrooms."

Projects built during the hackathon could win R20,000 (£1,265) and tickets to the next GEN Summit in Barcelona in June 2014 to compete against other teams from around the world.

Arenstein explained some of the project ideas. "We've got some of the normal pothole-fixing, crime-spotting, corruption-reporting kinds of apps. Then going all the way to the other extreme there are people trying to track money laundering and cross-border wildlife poaching syndicates."

The teams' progress can be followed through the #editorslab hashtag.

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