Miguel Paz, an investigative journalist in Santiago, has spent the past 12 years untangling the web of power and money in Chile. He is deputy director of El Mostrador, which is like Chile’s Politico. (“You could say we get ministers fired,” he says.)
Now, with the help of a three-year, $200,000 Knight News Challenge grant, Paz will effectively donate his Rolodex and notebooks to the people. Paz and a colleague, Héctor Vergara, are building Poderopedia — Powerpedia — a crowdsourced, professionally edited index of Chile’s elite.
“To understand how things work, you really need to know who is behind it,” Paz said. “When a politician that was supposed to be a Democrat actually passes a law that’s totally opposite to what his party believes in, you need to know: ‘Okay, who talked with this guy? Who are his friends? Who are the partners of his friends?’”
Paz likes to cite the example of what seems like a straightforward story: On Jan. 22, President Sebastian Piñera made an emergency landing in his personal helicopter. Piñera made conflicting statements about who was at the controls and what necessitated the landing. The other man in the cockpit became the focus of much public scrutiny as federal authorities launched an investigation. Who was Piñera’s co-pilot?
He was Andrés Navarro, who graduated from the same university as Piñera, as did 16 of Piñera’s 22 ministers, Paz says. Before attending university, Piñera graduated from the College of the Divine Word, along with his cousin, Herman Chadwick — a Chadwick has been in every Chilean administration for 35 years, Paz says — whom he appointed chairman of the National Television Council, which was convenient, at the time, because Piñera owned a national television channel, where, by the way, Andrés Navarro was director. It turns out the collective wealth of Divine Word’s alumni is US$30 billion, Paz says, which means Piñera’s grade school is responsible for wealth equal to 18.5 percent of Chile’s GDP. Are you following?
By visualizing relationships like these, Paz hopes to show how small the world of Chilean politics can be. He describes Poderopedia as “Wikipedia on speed.” Wikipedia presents the essential facts about a politician, but it does not illustrate relationships with other people, corporations, and parties — relationships that aren’t always linear.
“It’s nice to have the story of someone between when he was born and what he’s doing right now,” Paz said. “But actually, as a citizen or as a journalist or as an academic or an investigator, what I need to know are: Which are the top 10 things this guy has been involved in? Who he’s linked [to]? And what does he believe in? Who pays for what?”
Paz is also developing what he calls a power coefficient, a Klout-style score of influence in government. The algorithm takes into account personal fortune, property, media assets (owning a newspaper helps!), and political history. With enough data, Poderopedia will rank the 100 most powerful people in the country.
Paz said the facts will come from users, trusted guest editors, public databases, news articles, and his own reporting. He has faith in the the crowd — “30 percent of the biggest stories we ran last month came from anonymous news tips” — but he plans to add safeguards. All tips will be vetted before appearing on the site, Paz said, and a user will get “karma” points every time a tidbit is verified. Users with more karma are seen as more trustworthy to fellow users and site editors. The idea is not to trust the crowd implicitly but to outsource the legwork of amassing thousands of facts.
Paz hopes to launch Poderopedia in a year. It will be free and open source, as per the Knight Foundation’s requirements. Paz said he plans to write public APIs so that other news organizations can embed the data on their sites.
Paz would rather give away the reporting than keep it to himself. Informed citizens make better decisions, he says, and informed journalists write better stories. And if a news organization gets a big scoop with help from Poderopedia, hey — that’s more material for the database.