Should Kenyans #PayInterns?

This article is part of an assignment in which I tested the DataForager software to support my research for this article.

Kenyans this week have been debating an issue that seems common to companies everywhere: should companies offer unpaid internships? Internship debates always highlight strong underlying social disagreements about employer fairness, education, and the purpose of work. How do those themes play out in Kenya, where at last report, 38% percent of Kenyan young people between 15 and 29 are neither students nor employed? (pdf, p74)

On Twitter, Jackie LifestyleDiva asks if this is a genuine debate:

Who is actually talking about #PayInterns? According to a Global Voices article by Ndesanjo Macha, the online debate began with a tweet by tech blogger Robert Alai, asking tweeps to ask companies if they pay interns. The story escalated into a general conversation about internship pay, with some companies even tweeting details of just how much they pay their interns.

This sentence brought to you by DataForager:

Other people quoted in the Global Voices article include entrepreneurs, IT staff, a corporate social responsibility consultant, journalists, and even the Kenya Police department.

What is a typical internship?

Here are some internships I found on Kenyan job listing sites like JobsEastAfrica247, Dealfish, TipTopJobs, the InternKenya blog, and the University of Nairobi’s jobs and internships website page.

The Kenyan Association of Manufacturers recently posted 3-6 month unpaid internships in policy research and advocacy for advanced students and recent graduates. They do not offer the possibility of employment after the internship. This looks like a classic unpaid internship, occuring over an extended period with no offer of tangible outcomes.

The multinational investment bank Renaissance Group offers a much better internship (though apparently unpaid). This two-month programme offers training in specific areas and promises an opportunity to join the Renaissance Academy, the bank’s training scheme for incoming employees.

ACTED, an NGO, has offered an internships with a $300 USD/month living allowance, in addition to reimbursement for accommodation, food, travel, and life insurance. The reporting internship lasts six months, but unlike the investment bank opportunity, offers no promises of future work. At $300/month plus insurance and expenses, the internship offers nearly as much value as the median salary of administrative assistants in Kenya, according to But the internship is advertised globally- my guess is that Kenyan students only have a small chance on this one.

This IT Internship opportunity from Toolkit Solutions is for computer science students with their own laptops and 3G modem sticks. What do they get? Programming experience as well as unlimited monthly Internet paid for by the company.

Advice for Prospective Interns

Several of Kenya’s universities offer support for interns. The Strathmore University career development office organises a global internship fair. They also coordinate “Industrial Attachments” internships for 3rd year undergraduates which grant academic credit. The University of Kenya offers similar “placement services.”

So, Should we #PayInterns?

I think this is the wrong question. As we can see from the diversity of work experience opportunities (as well as discussion on #PayInterns), it’s more important for employers and prospective interns to choose arrangements that provide everyone with the value they need. The best internships, whether they offer reimbursment of pay, offer training, work experience, networks, and a job opportunity at the end. I have seen plenty of well-paid internships where employers don’t offer any training and interns leave with no experience beyond the coffee machine and the file cabinet.

Overall, I think Kenyan employers are doing a bad job of signaling what students get out of internships. Too many internship listings include a page or more about the kind of applicant they expect, with no mention of what they plan to offer to their interns, pay or not. Companies with no plan for delivering learning and mentorship to interns have a problem much deeper than pay.

A company may choose not pay interns, but it does have a responsibility to make sure interns get something valuable out of the experience.

DataForager Prototype Complete

Last week I shared the idea of DataForager, a browser-based tool to support question-centric research and sharing online (DataForager slides here). This week, I built my first prototype.

Data Forager Prototype Results:

The prototype of Data Forager detects twitter handles within a web page. Since WordPress mangles links you will have to find it here. If you drag the DataForager link to your bookmarks bar, you can activate it on any page, such as this article on Global Voices.

DataForager can currently find twitter accounts…

  • referred to in plain text
  • in Tweets embedded using Twitter’s embed format
  • referred to in links
  • which are percent Encoded
  • with strange formatting, such as HTML inside them

At present, DataForager doesn’t work on al Jazeera’s embedded Storify stories due to Cross Site Scripting security stipulations in browsers. A future version of DataForager will use JQuery to fetch the iframe data for parsing, without crossing security restrictions.

Next Steps

Now that I am successfully collecting Twitter accounts, my next step is to automatically create or extend a twitter list from this data. I had hoped that it would be possible to use third-party software for this, but I can’t find any third-party software that creates a Twitter list from a set of Twitter accounts. So I’ll have to integrate something into Data Forager itself.

Once DataForager is able to save to a Twitter list, it will be ready for use in reporting stories.

Five Tech Ideas for Explanatory Journalism

How can technology help journalists make sense of complex issues and explain them to the public in a clear, understandable manner?

Last year, Jay Rosen’s journalism students spent an entire semester researching and making explanations in partnership with ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom which focuses on investigative journalism. The class did amazing work to highlight notable examples and develop their own explainers.

I kept my eyes open for parts of the process which technology could improve. Here are my top tech recommendations for supporting beter explainers.

(Read More)

What James Ibori Stole

For this week’s datajournalism assignment, Godwin Nnanna and I looked into the admitted theft of $250 million of Delta State money by James Ibori, who pled guilty in London in late February. (get the data)

We wanted to find out just what he stole, explain how it fit into the context of corruption more generally in Nigerian states, and clearly illustrate the magnitude of his actions. We’re still working on the article.

Data Collection

To tell this story, we needed information on what Ibori stole as well as more general information about Nigerian government budgets. We had to compile our own datasets from a variety of incomplete sources.

  • The Metropolitan Police Press Bulletin contained detailed information about the guilty plea, including addresses, value amounts, and photographs of Ibori’s highest value assets. This information was the basis of all of the newspaper reports we saw.
  • Values were not provided for some of Ibori’s UK properties, so we used Zoopla’s property database to arrive at reasonable price estimates based on comparable properties in the vicinity
  • We obtained the guilty plea from the writer who covered the issue for the BBC. The prosecutor did not respond to our emails.
  • Nigerian government budget information is very hard to get, and actuals are almost impossible to obtain. We were able to cobble together enough information for the story however:
    • Godwin called contacts at the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission
    • I scraped federal and state budget data from, a scrappy government transparency initiative out of Nigeria’s CoCreation Hub. YourBudgIt (who launched a redesigned website today) then sent me updated data after I requested it on Twitter.
    • A number of citizens’ advocacy groups track budgets and expenses of Nigerian states. Many will look through the budget for building projects and then take photos of those projects to monitor if the money is being used.
    • Our datasource is here, which includes inline links to sources where possible


We want to use this data to add context to the story– to tell people that focusing on Ibori’s luxury assets actually minimizes our impression of how much he stole. The assets reported by Scotland Yard account for less than half of what he stole.

James Ibori and his associates pled guilty to stealing a lot of money– half as much as the Nigerian federal government spends on agriculture in a year and several times the annual budget for education and health capital projects in Delta State, where he was governor.

Godwin argues that James Ibori is not an exception. He wanted to dig further into how money gets allocated to states in the Niger Delta and what they do with it. So we developed two more visuals. The first shows federal allocations to Nigerian states– showing just how disproportionate federal allocations are to states in the Niger Delta.

Then we created a series of dashboards for the four major delta states, showing a variety of figures about budget allocations, health, education, and poverty. Here for example is Delta State, where inequality is rising rapidly, poverty is widespread, health and education are a small part of the budget, and most of the money goes into capital projects, which sometimes go into people’s pockets rather than the infrastructure they supposedly support.

Partnerships between Techs and Journalists

This was the first time I partnered with a journalist who was unfamiliar with what it takes to write software or do data wrangling. As a result, I think we ended up doing our own thing toward the end, and I expect that we’ll have to put significant work into making our stories converge. Between the growing popularity of data pieces and Initiatives like the Data Journalism Handbook, I hope it will become easier for these collaborations to go smoothly.

Overall, I think it’s important to communicate the stylistic affordances of data journalism as well as the constraints on scope created by committing to collaborate on a data piece. Overall, I would love to learn more about successful working practices of data researchers who collaborate with journalists.

Tech Design & Recommendations

This was a *hard* project to do. Here are some recommendations:

  • We need to encourage and support more NGOs to release data alongside their reports.
  • We need to design databases which are capable of containing information about the source of figures in different rows/columns
  • We need to do more to make journalists aware of data resources in their own area, as well as support NGOs towards sharing more of their data sources with journalists
  • We could crowdsource the creation of datasets from disparate sources if we had the tools for crowd researchers to document the source of a particular number, and tools for users of that dataset to evaluate the sources of those numbers
  • Lots of organisations are independently pressuring government for the same data. A “What Do They Know” app for Nigeria which helped  them pool efforts would be awesome.

Fact Checking Food Advocacy

This week’s assignment invited students to analyse the rhetoric of a public claim and check the facts. The issue I picked was a very popular petition on (and related media) to encourage the United States Department of Agriculture to stop using a certain kind of beef product in school lunches.

Exploring the issue involved:

  • Learning about different kinds of meat processing
  • Studying recent history of food safety concerns
  • Reading 10-15 articles, and watching several videos
  • Reading USDA food certification records
  • Learning about the US National School Lunch programme
  • Tracing claims through the churn cycle of news media to find to find the original source
  • Trying, unsuccessfully, to reach various people in the press as well as the source for a claim
  • Figuring out the agenda of various sources, whether trade magazines or activists
  • Deciding how deep to go into an issue when fact checking. At a surface level, a lot of claims appear very flimsy. Verifying a claim in the news is especially difficult when something has little evidence to support it. One feels drawn to prove or disprove something that might not be proveable.

Technology Ideas

Checking facts is really hard work. Not a lot of it can be split up or optimised. Here are some thoughts:

  • Tools like can help fact-checkers identify sources. One can imagine a similar version which could track a quote through media to find the earliest case.
  • It would be awesome to be able to know the origin or funders of a website when you’re looking at it.
  • Part of fact-checking involves doing back-of-the-envelope thought experiments to evaluate the feasibility of a claim. These could be handed off to someone else.
  • At Texperts, we employed a large team of expert web researchers with a variety of complementary research competencies. A similar distributed team of workers could be very effective at fact-checking.
  • If they are able to attract enough interest, offers a fascinating model for social annotation of things that people mistrust or want to check

My Article: Is Pink Slime Going to Kill Us All?

Has “pink slime” invaded the American food supply, where it is spreading bacteria and contributing to malnutrition? Does 70% of all American supermarket beef contain this allegedly harmful substance? Or is this just a food scare created by activists who have been irresponsible with the facts?

A recent petition by children’s food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel has received over two hundred thousand signatures in a week’s time. Bettina is urging the United States Department of Agriculture, who purchase food for the National School Lunch Program, to stop buying meat pcontaining “boneless lean beef trimmings,” primarily produced by the company Beef Products.

In this post, I’m doing three things. Firstly, I’m going to analyse the rhetoric used by “pink slime” campaigners to get mechanically recovered beef off the menu. Secondly, I’m going to look into the context of the issue. Finally, I’m going to investigate Bettina’s claim that 70% of all supermarket beef includes so-called pink slime.

Understanding the Campaign Rhetoric

Looking at the petition and Bettina’s blog, here are some of the prominent persuasive tactics deployed by the campaign:

  • Control the language: “pink slime” is much easier and more interesting to write than “ammonia-treated lean beef trimmings.” It’s also a terrifying notion, one which is very likely to collect a high number of clicks.
  • A disgusting photo on the petition features regular ground beef rather than “lean beef trimmings.” It’s the basic ground beef photo on Wikipedia, and it is often reused by “pink slime” activists. The other frequently-used image appears to be of chicken, not beef. Actual photos of “pink slime” look more appealing.
  • Obvious bad guy: The “Pink Slime” campaign has a single target: Beef Products Inc.
  • Simple change: In addition to convincing supermarkets and fast food companies to give up lean beef trimmings, this petition calls on the USDA to stop purchasing it.
  • Appeal to instinctive disgust: The petition goes further than using the language of “slime.” It argues, “it is simply wrong to feed our children…scraps that were, in the past, destined for use in pet food.”
  • Please think of the children: It’s easier to convince the USDA to stop purchasing lean beef trimmings than it is to convince them to rate the product as unsafe. Since the USDA does the school lunch program purchasing, it’s perfectly appropriate to ask us to think of the children. It also happens to be an incredibly powerful persuasive tactic.
  • The fact they’re hiding from you: Betinna and others often repeat the claim that “70% of the nation’s ground beef” contains pink slime. By citing a number of that size, activists convince us that we, too, should care.


The backstory of this issue can be found a December 2009 New York Times article by investigations reporter Michael Moss which exposed broad lack of testing by the USDA of ammonia-treated meat, a lack of testing which led to cases of e. coli and salmonella in the food supply. Moss’s article, The Burger That Shattered Her Life went on to win a Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting.

Looking over the USDA’s Advanced Meat Recovery documents, the story of lean beef trimmings has been an ongoing cycle of testing the wrong thing and trying to correct oversights. In the 1990s, Advanced Meat Recovery techniques were developed to reduce the amount of bone included in meat extracted from scraps down to levels safe for human consumption. AMR did this successfully. Then there were concerns around spinal tissue in the scraps, which led to a new set of tests. More recent are concerns around the use of ammonia to increase the alkalinity of the meat, killing bacteria. If the ammonia gets too low or the system stops working, bacteria can get into the food supply, especially where lean beef trimmings are mixed with other meat.

70%: how a speculation becomes fact

Bettina and others point to a report by ABC news that 70% of ground beef in supermarkets contains “pink slime.” It’s a number I have seen repeated frequently by campaigners. Where does this “fact” come from? ABC cites former USDA researcher Gerald Zirnstein, who coined the term “pink slime” in 2002 and opposed USDA approval.

Zirnstein offers no evidence to support his claim, and he’s been gone from the USDA since at least 2004. Nevertheless, Zirnstein’s figure has been quoted in The Huffington Post, Fox News, Mashable, the New York Times, The Daily Beast, Yahoo, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and CNN.

Zirnstein could not be reached for comment. ABC did not respond to emails or tweets.

The Beef industry has started to push back. Beef Daily, a beef industry blog by Penton Media, has called pink slime a myth. Beef Products Inc has created the website Pink Slime is a Myth, featuring informational blog posts and video interviews which explain the process of making Lean Beef Trimmings. The American Meat Institute, a meat and poultry trade organisation, has created the website Meat MythCrushers, which also features informational videos, resource guides, and information from food industry experts. The American Meat Institute has also posted a Questions and Answers PDF. Meat industry supporters have also tried to rally opposition through the #pinkslimeisamyth hashtag on Twitter, to limited effect.

Unsuccessful back of the envelope calculation: Is pink slime as widespread as critics claim? Whole Foods and Costco do not stock it at all. Organic labeled beef does not include it. Let’s do some math. USDA regulations require that no more than 15% of ground beef contain “pink slime.” The total US beef consumption in 2010 was 26.4 billion pounds. BPI produces 7 million pounds of product a week, for an annual total of 364 million pounds a year. According to the USDA, the US exports 2.3 billion pounds of beef a year. According to an Oklahoma State University brochure….. (at this point, I had to stop because it appears to be impossible to know how much ground beef is sold annually in the US).

Should we be worried?

The real dangers here seem to be e. coli and salmonella, both of which can be killed by properly cooking your food. Although food including lean beef trimmings will be much less tasty and nutritious, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate health risk for adults or children.

More broadly, the inclusion of lean beef trimmings into other meat offers a worrisome potential for contamination, especially if companies continue to enjoy the level of immunity from testing and labeling which the New York Times revealed in 2009.

The Journalism Innovation Spiral: A Method for Journalism Innovation Design

How can designers imagine innovative technologies for news and journalism? I think I know the answer. In this post, I propose a model and demonstrate it by picking apart the “Profile article” for innovative ideas. The end result is a browser plugin which can attach blogging tools to any text form on the web.