Chilean Chronicles, Part 86: La Nacion and the Struggle for Data in Argentina

Gaby Bouret and Romina Colman of La Nacion's data team.

Gaby Bouret, left, and Romina Colman of La Nacion’s data team.

I’ve been writing for about a month about the impact of the 2009 Transparency Law in Chile.
Hailed upon its passage as a landmark piece of legislation, it called for the formation of a “Consejo de Transparencia,” or Transparency Council.

The sweeping nature of the law and the infrastructure of the Transparency Council are two of the elements that led transparency guru Moises Sanchez to say that Chile has among the best frameworks on the continent.

But the law has yet to deliver fully on its considerable promise.

Among the challenges that I’ve learned about so far: many journalists are not using the law, and those that are using it are not connected to non-profit organizations and/or computer programmers who can write the code necessary to scrape website and create interactive applications.

Here in Argentina, the team of data journalists at La Nacion, Argentina’s second-largest newspaper, confront an almost inverted situation from many of their Chilean counterparts, and are meeting the substantial challenges to accessing and processing data in creative, collaborative and innovative ways.

I met with four members of the team today in their new offices in a multi-story, gleaming glass building. (Gabriela Bouret and I had met at the NICAR conference in Louisville in February, and had kept in touch since then.)

Ines Pujana of La Nacion's data team.

Ines Pujana of La Nacion’s Data Team.

Team memberRomina Colman, an information activist, told me today that Argentine law only requires the executive branch to deliver the materials that members of the public request.

The legislature and judges are not held to the same legal standard.

Even within the executive section, emails are exempt from being provided.

Journalists have to specify what they plan to do with the information they request.

The agencies answering the information requests can take as long as they want to answer.

This can be up to three of four months, in some cases.

And, in the instances when they do ultimately provide data, they do so not in a digital format.

Instead, they provide paper.

An example of a paper document the data team at La Nacion received.

An example of a paper document received by the data team at La Nacion.

Notebooks and notebooks filled with hundreds of sheets of papers that have to be entered by hand in order to perform data analysis.

For their ongoing and groundbreaking investigation into fiscal malfeasance by federal officials, for instance, the data team had received information on about 600 elected officials.

The team worked with about 50 volunteers from three separate non-profit organizations to do the data entry.

This took many hours.

After that, they went through and verified the data that had been entered, finding and correcting about 600 mistakes.

From there they did a second, random spot check to confirm the integrity of the entered data.

Then they performed the analysis and reported the story out.

The team is also working with computer coders and the design team headed by Gaston Roitberg to display the data in accessible ways and to have it update as soon as the original source updates.

They also embed the original documents so that interested readers can read them.

Every document that is embedded has to be scanned first.

This whole process can take as long as a year for a single project.

But the team at La Nacion is doing it.

They’re forging a distinctive place in Latin American journalism and gaining well-deserved global recognition for their work.

They’re also helping to change the culture of journalism within the paper.

It’s not just a shift from not using data to have it be an integral part of their work. (The team does a daily post that analyzes data in some way.)

It’s also helping shift from an individual, even secretive method of working in a more open and collective manner.

The paper’s management is backing the approach in more than rhetoric.

Gaby said the team has conducted a number of weeklong trainings for the other reporters outside of the office, away from the constant pull of emails and texts and phone calls.

They’re also support this weekend’s Data Fest, a two-day extravaganza that will feature the opening, mining and visualizing of public data bases.

Friend and former Python instructor Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times and Ryan Murphy of the Texas Tribune will be on hand to present.

I don’t want either to romanticize the team’s work or situation or to claim a knowledge about what they do that is greater than what I have.

But I will say that my visit to their office today showed me yet another way that journalists working in other countries with the benefit of a tradition of freedom of information laws are fighting, and succeeding, in making their country, and by extension, more open and more transparent.

Their work, and their story, deserve to be shared.

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