Fall event highlight - how La Nación's data journalism changes hearts and minds in Argentina, and beyond

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed December 12, 2019
Summary:
Next up in my fall event highlights series - a remarkable story of data journalism via the Tableau Conference. This is how La Nación gets it done; the enterprise lessons are vivid.

Hungry for the future - La Nacion

We talk about using visualizations to create actionable data, or build a data-driven culture.

But how about using visualizations to expose systemic corruption? How about impacting the global conversation on issues like poverty, prejudice, and climate change?

That's the not-exaggerated tale of La Nación, the largest daily newspaper in Argentina.

I first learned of La Nación's use of dashboards at last year's Tableau Conference (you can see their La Nación's public Tableau "viz" channel here).

What caught my attention? La Nación's central role in exposing political corruption in Argentina, via an award-winning story known globally as The notebooks of bribes.

I can state, without exception, this is the most compelling data use case I've ever heard - since we launched diginomica almost seven years ago.

On hand to tell me this story - and to update me in 2019 - was La Nación's Gabriela Bouret, data analyst and data miner. The notebooks saga began in January 2018, when Diego Cabot, an investigative journalist from La Nación, got a big surprise from a source. The source gave Cabot eight notebooks, written by the driver of Roberto Baratta, the Secretary of Energy. The Minister in charge of that agency was Julio De Vido - a prominent officer during the 12 years of the Kirchner administration (from 2003 to 2015).

The La Nación team could tell from the beginning that the notebooks contained shocking information - a detailed account of each route the driver took for the last ten years, bringing Baratta and other officials to drop sites to collect bags of cash - bribes from a few large companies in Argentina, all of which had received big public contracts.

So, you have the notebooks, but what to do with them? La Nación decided to do nothing - until they verified all the information.

This brings us to a problem all data-savvy enterprises must confront: what happens when your most important data is in a problematic form?

Cabot and his La Nación team began by hand-scanning every page in every notebook (you can scroll through these hand-written scans digitally now). Here is a sample:

Then, Cabot's team painstakingly transcribed every single line of this data into Excel, organizing it all by columns such as:

  • Names and positions
  • Addresses and destination of the routes
  • Data from car plates
  • Names of companies
  • Delivery locations
  • Personal information of the individuals identified when a bribe was paid
  • Amount of each bribe

All of the payment info was cross-checked against tenders and public contracts. Once it was all verified, as La Nación wrote: 

The team understood that they were working with the biggest corruption scheme ever revealed in Argentina.

Seven months later, La Nación went public. To date, 73 individuals have been prosecuted, including a former Argentine president. Forty have been imprisoned, another forty have confessed, and $600 million was seized.

I'm told there will be a movie made. I asked Bouret: was her team ever threatened or afraid? No, she told me, they were not - but she thinks Cabot was pretty worried there for a while:

Especially when it wasn't digitized yet, and he was the only one that had the information.

Eventually, La Nación charted out the web of corruption in an exceptional visual. Turning data into visuals can change public opinion - something La Nacion documented in their Open Data Journalism for Change project. Via that link, you can see a series of "before and after" examples, from raw-looking PDFs to effective visuals.

As La Nación wrote:

Anyone can think that opening data is none of our business, but in Argentina, a country without FOI law nor significant open data initiatives, we wanted to do data journalism. To do so, we had to build our data sets from scratch and share them, to demonstrate that it can be done anywhere, by anyone.

Citing their goal of facilitating journalism and "hacktivism," La Nación believes in the power of data "reuse" in useful analytics or visualizations:

By doing this, we show how evidence produces impact.

Getting public interest data into the public domain is the mission of Bouret's ten-person data journalism team:

Making datasets “famous” and opening data can only be done through open collaboration.

In that spirit, La Nación has loads of significant data visualization projects underway. One is a global climate mobilization initiative, involving Argentina and 160 other countries (click on the link to see interactive dashboards and video interviews, in Spanish).

Another standout project from 2017, Hungry for the Future (Hambre de Futuro), has spurred new efforts. Last year, Bouret and Mariana Trigo Viera documented the project for the Tableau Public blog. As Bouret and Viera explained, this project explores childhood poverty in Argentina, highlighting stories from the most vulnerable locations in the country:

We aimed to put the structural problem of childhood poverty on local agendas and to give a voice to the children affected by poverty.

As of November 2018, the project had raised $500,000 from La Nación readers. As Bouret and Viera wrote, that data journalism sensibility impacts their own research:

Data analysis and visualization also affect the work behind these stories - how your stories actually unfold, informing your decisions as you progress towards a final product.

For instance, by analyzing the results of this study by the Observatory of Social Debt of the UCA (Catholic University of Argentina), we knew which cities we needed to travel to in order to get a real look at the most vulnerable locations in Argentina.

They shared some of the most influential visualizations from this project, as well as the data sets in Excel for readers to crunch:

Hungry for the future - La Nacion

 

To interact with this Hungry for the Future chart, go to the Tableau Public version. All the drill downs reflect data Bouret's team gathered in the field.

Another memorable project was the Riachuelo Pollution Investigation from 2016. Bouret and Viera also shared this on the Tableau Public blog, to give aspiring data journalists a step-by-step look at their process.

If you think my lesson for enterprises here is that well-designed dashboards can spur data to action, you'd be wrong - at least half wrong. To me, the standout lesson from La Nación's data journalism team comes before that: dig out the crucial or disruptive data no one else has, standardize and digitize it. As Bouret and Viera wrote:

We looked for indicators published by ACUMAR, the authority regulating the Matanza-Riachuelo Geographic Basin, and we downloaded the data to assess which indicators were relevant for our investigation. As it is a topic that has been discussed a lot in the press, we wanted to find unique data that were new to the audience.

The result?

After having analyzed the various indicators, hand in hand with journalist Laura Rocha, we observed that children were among the most vulnerable populations, with high chances to catch diseases related to pollution. We decided to make it the focus of this special report.

This interactive graphic showing the various impacts of pollution on humans - particularly children - was striking:

La Nacion - pollution impact chart

Please visit La Nacion for the interactive version.

Bouret and Viera explained the chart's impact:

Regarding the visual product "Las enfermedades del Riachuelo" (The diseases of the Riachuelo), its purpose was to show the number of neighbors who get sick and quantify the real consequences of living in a polluted place. The reader may search for disease and the chart displays a list of the main symptoms and the rate per 100.000 inhabitants segmented per age. The chart also emphasizes the high incidence of diseases in children.

La Nación's ongoing data journalism projects are too numerous to mention. A few of note:

  • The invisible network, a follow-on to the hunger project, analyzes the root causes of poverty. Another goal of this project is to surface prejudices towards the disenfranchised.
  • An upcoming economic indicator project, tracking factors such as inflation and poverty. (I'll add the link when this is published)
  • The aforementioned climate change project, aka Proyecto Natureliza.

The wrap - data truths are not always comfortable

To imply that everyone welcomes uncomfortable or surprising data truths would be a naive fantasy. Tracking, exposing and visualizing data can potentially make those in power uncomfortable - that certainly holds true in the enterprise, and also for La Nación.

At the time of our November 2019 interview, Bouret was very concerned about the recent (October) Argentinian elections, and the potential impact of those elections on open data journalism. I'm sure election anxiety resonates with our readership as well.

I doubt Bouret would describe her team's work as courageous; she's someone who just goes about the business of getting good work done. All I know is that I see the world a bit differently as a result of her efforts.