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May 23, 2012, 2:54 p.m.

How La Nación is using data to challenge a FOIA-free culture

One of Argentina’s largest newspapers is creating and sharing databases with the public, while training its newsroom to dig deep into data.

One year ago, La Nación (Argentina’s second largest newspaper) revealed that the government had spent more than $34 billion — in eight years — to subsidize the operation of private buses in Argentina, including 9,516 in Buenos Aires. The investigation not only uncovered that financial aid increased 1,965 percent, but it also identified the 20 companies that benefited most from the plan.

Too much data? Not when you have the tools to sort through it. All that information was hidden in 285,000 records scattered on government websites and in official documents. The only way to make sense of it was to pair journalists with programmers (and computers, of course).

And that’s what La Nación did.

As part of its innovation strategy, the newspaper is training its reporters, editors, designers, and developers on how to access information, and make it accesible to a general audience.

Data journalism produces more for La Nación than original reporting. The data visualizations are also enabling the newspaper offer a better online experience.

“We are adding more dimensions of interaction with our content,” Angélica Peralta-Ramos, La Nación’s Multimedia Development Manager, told me.

La Nación is following in the steps of The Guardian and The New York Times, internationally acclaimed for their interactive news projects. The paper’s investigation into government subsidies is a finalist in the world’s first Data Journalism Awards, which will be announced on May 30.

“Colleagues from abroad tell us we have made great progress, although we think we’re on a very early stage,” Peralta emphasizes.

Building a team

La Nación realized it needed a formal data journalism team after its 2011 coverage of the Wikileaks’ cables, and a data-heavy investigation of Argentina’s former secretary of transportation. In both cases, it was clear that it took more than traditional reporting to do the stories. “The journalists were in front of a pen drive full of information and weren’t able to ‘solve the puzzle’ without help from a programmer,” Peralta said.

To prevent that from happening again, they decided to build a team that specialized in data. They looked around the newsroom, and gathered a group of tech-friendly reporters and designers. They were easy to find because three years ago La Nación started a department (led by Peralta, who is by training a computer scientist, not a journalist) focused on teaching  multimedia reporting skills.

The next challenge: coach journalists on how to use Excel as a reporting tool. Two workshops were enough to narrow the gap that often exists between journalists and numbers.

“From the beginning, our goal was to see Excel [as] more than just a tool to analyze information; it was about learning how to organize the data so it can be visualized or shared in a open database,” Peralta  explained.

La Nación DATA comprises 10 people; six from the tech side (a project manager, a trainer, two designers, two IT folks), and four full-time data journalists. It is a small team but the data movement is thriving in the newsroom. Two weeks ago, La Nación created a data producer position to spot and convert useful data that comes in via press releases, emails, or PDFs. There are 8 data producers in different sections of the newsroom, and the plan is to keep adding more.

“At one point, they should be able to actually work with that data,” Peralta said.

Trascending journalism

In Argentina, a great deal of computer-assisted reporting involves building datasets from scratch. Most of the information is available in government websites, but most of it is in PDF files that need to be converted into CSV and Excel formats.

“When the documents can’t be read by scanners or are not digitalized, we have to enter the data manually,” Peralta said. For the bus subsidies piece, for example, La Nación’s team had to convert six years of PDFs (about 13 MB). Not only that, but the datasets and visualizations have been updated monthly since they were created. The frequency of updates in the future will be determined by the public’s interest, she said.

But whether the updates come every month or every quarter, the database is not going anywhere. In a country where there are no FOIA protections, La Nación is aware that information is valuable, not only for journalistics purposes but for citizens. That’s why they launched an open data platform, where anyone can access and use the data.

“We want to open new sources of data,” she said. “Part of our mission is to activate the demand for information. Otherwise no one will generate it.”

POSTED     May 23, 2012, 2:54 p.m.
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