Kontinentalist was founded in four years ago with the mission of changing the world’s conversations about Asia. But the way to do so wasn’t always clear. Initially, we’d considered and experimented with various ideas—for example, being a massive repository for Asian data. It was only more recently that we’ve clarified our abilities and method: we strive to elevate the conversation about Asia, and to do so through data-driven stories, bridging the gap between research and the public.
Firstly, we do this by partnering with organisations like think tanks, humanitarian organisations, conservation and activist collectives, who provide expertise and valuable lived experiences to make the stories real and grounded in expertise. Basically, we try to unlock the potential for insight by working with these organisations whose data might otherwise go untapped. We then lend our data visualisation and narrative skills to the issues, investigating and presenting it in a fresh and engaging way that’s rarely seen in this part of the world.
Secondly, as we’re aware we and others in the region operate in a media environment that’s sometimes challenging— e.g., our regional voices are under-represented in global media institutions, data access and literacy is low, other challenging sociopolitical contexts—we run many initiatives that strive to address these challenges. For example, we speak with and profile Asian data practitioners to raise their profile, and we contribute what we can to public education via talks and data literacy series and workshops. In this way, we go far beyond the remit of a traditional newsroom. To truly enhance the power of data journalism, we not only make worthy data stories, but also strive to build a wider community to be more receptive and to be more active producers of these stories.
Thirdly, in terms of inspiration and mentors, the data visualisation and journalism community has so many wonderful people to learn from, it’s hard to single out any. We’ve definitely benefited from just absorbing the incredible data journalism work that exists out there, and it’s probably shaped the work we can do on a subconscious level and by expanding our imagination of what’s possible. Overall, however, there isn’t any other organisation of similar size and regional context that does exactly what we do in terms of our mission and the various initiatives we run.
In all, I believe Kontinentalist should be considered for special recognition because: (1) We’re truly pushing the envelope for innovative data journalism, both in the content itself but also in how we work—bringing entirely new communities into this field and helping them realise the potential of their data too, which also benefits our communities. (2) Despite being much smaller, we’re doing more than producing data stories, as we try to nurture the field and community. (3) We’re quite unique in the combination of all that we do and why we do what we do, and we hope it inspires people all over the world to chart their own path too.
Description of portfolio:
Kontinentalist is a node for many collaborative data stories in Asia. We work with all kinds of organisations, from think tanks and international humanitarian organisations to smaller grassroots activists and citizens. This means most of our stories include collaborators but generally the workflow is such that Kontinentalist does the bulk of the work for every project: the collaborator might share some data or insights; we’d supplement with our research, query and clean the data, storyboard, design, draft, develop, and iterate.
In terms of challenges, there’s the familiar one of lack of easy data access and more generally a culture of journalistic freedom and awareness where we operate. As we’re not a full-time newsroom, we also don’t have capacity to exclusively produce data stories as much as we’re passionate about doing so. Other challenges tend to be more specific to each individual project, for example, cleaning unstructured data or coordinating multiple actors.
How we overcome these challenges: We prioritise the topics that we feel would have the greatest societal impact, by filling in an information gap or covering an angle that hasn’t been done before in the existing conversation. We also get very creative in terms of what counts as data sources and persistent in searching for leads. We are disciplined in making sure data is actually central to the topic, making sure to marry the story with the form rather than just having ornamental visualisations. Thus in the portfolio projects you see, they’re of topics that are pressing and we felt weren’t sufficiently covered by regional journalism, we had good data sources and key collaborators to provide valuable insight, and the data was central to the narrative and would help illuminate the public on important matters.
As for other operational issues like capacity and coordination issues, we try to restructure where sensible or move things around. At all times, however, we abide by our values and commitment to ethical knowledge production:
Innovative yet rigorous storytelling
We believe story dictates form, not the other way round
We strive to move beyond today’s digital storytelling techniques
We prefer slow thinking to chasing news cycles
We research and fact-check everything
We’re transparent about where we get our data and how we handle it
We change our minds when new or better evidence emerges
A principled approach
We’re all about cultural context, because facts don’t live in a vacuum
We refuse to exoticise Asia, and resist Eurocentrism in all its forms
We treat myths, legends, and local knowledge with respect
We stand for freedom of speech
We care about our environment and saving it for future generations
Unique and unheard voices
We support diversity in identity and worldview
We believe that each individual brings something unique to the table
We tailor our work to give meaningful voices a platform
We thrive on collaborations and feedback
We only work with partners who value openness, constructive criticism, and working together on challenging issues