Through the VozData collaborative data platform, Argentine paper La Nacion has conducted large-scale journalism investigations and transformed their readership into civic collaborators on projects for public accountability.
At La Nacion, we think collaborative technology should be an integral part of any contemporary media operation. We created VozData, a collaborative online platform, so that our readers could be involved in journalism projects linked to public accountability and transparency. The VozData platform enables users to convert ‘trapped’ data (often data published in a PDF format) into a structured database. Opening up the files and releasing data in this way means that public information can then be sorted, searched, and more easily analysed. Citizen participation in this process is vital – together we can build civic trust and hold our government accountable for their actions.
Argentina is a country without a Freedom Of Information Act and in this context, the VozData platform is a new concept. The idea was inspired by the Guardian’s 2009 crowdsourced campaign ‘Investigate your MPs’ Expenses’, and ProPublica´s Free the Files. Our first VozData initiative, Senate Expenses, was focused on government spending. In just a couple of months and with the help of 1000 volunteers, La Nacion digitised more than 10,000 PDFs relating to the accounts of the Argentine Senate between 2010 and 2012. The citizen-generated data was published online in real time, ranked according to recipients or contractors and type of expense. La Nacion´s data team then reviewed representative samples and published datasets from the different time periods in open data formats for download (CSV, XLS, etc). The OpenNews Fellows working with us also open sourced the VozData code, naming it ‘Crowdata’.
VozData Civic Marathons: “The People Want to Know”
In May 2014, we launched a VozData #SemanadeMayo campaign to finish digitising data from the first phase of our Senate Expenses investigation. VozData partnered with the public, NGOs and universities to create an event called a ‘Civic Marathon’, beginning on 23 May and hosted at La Nacion.
‘Semana de Mayo’, or May Week, has historic significance for Argentina as it marks a sequence of events in 1810 which led to the formation of our First National Government. We celebrate #SemanadeMayo with the phrase “El Pueblo Quiere Saber” or “The people want to know”.
Universities in Córdoba and Concepcion del Uruguay (two other cities in Argentina) joined our campaign, holding a VozData Civic Marathon on the same day. By 11am on 25 May, the national holiday, we had finished the 6557 document review and shouted from our various locations: “¡Viva la Patria! ¡A salute to our Homeland!”
Instilling a culture of open data in the next generation
Our long-term objective is to promote widespread understanding of open data techniques and establish a culture of transparency within our community. To this end, we continue to come up with ways to develop VozData and enhance participation. In 2015, we tested a ‘Teams’ feature that enables people to volunteer their time under the umbrella badge of their organisation. This feature has led to healthy competition between teams, simultaneously increasing participation and the number of projects completed.
Training and educating the next generation in open data techniques is essential to achieving our long-term goals. In 2015, we worked with universities in Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Entre Ríos provinces, teaching students practical skills in open data. These students will take the skills that they learn from being involved with VozData into their future careers and workplaces (whether in government, the media, NGOs or academia). Over time, we believe this cohort of trained open data evangelisers will help generate a more ‘open’ work culture and shift the paradigm towards information transparency.
Federal Prosecutor Nisman’s death and collaborative investigative journalism
In addition to using VozData for open data projects, the platform has enabled more effective collaboration on investigative journalism projects in the public interest. One such example is our 2015 classified investigation of 20,000 audio files relating to the signature of the Iran-Argentina Memorandum and the death of Federal Prosecutor Nisman. Nisman had been investigating the perpetrators of a 1994 bomb attack on a Jewish community centre, known as AMIA (the local acronym for Argentina Israelite Mutual Association), which left 85 people dead. Alberto Nisman had been due to publicly accuse President Cristina Kirchner, former Argentine Minister of Foreign Relations Hector Timerman, and a number of other public officials of a cover up conspiracy, just a few hours after he was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment.
A group of researchers used the VozData platform to collectively go through the recordings and categorise our findings: those relating to Nisman’s investigations, relevant other conversations, irrelevant or discarded audio (answering machine etc). Our system also included a box for transcription and a form for keywords/tags. As many of the audio recordings contained private and sensitive information, this was not a suitable project for public collaboration. However, we uploaded a lengthy (almost 300 pages) PDF containing links to audios that supported the accusations in Prosecutor Nisman’s case, and shared this document with the public.
In the lead up to Argentina’s 2015 general election, there were large protests in a number of provinces. The protesters claimed that the results of the primary elections, which had taken place earlier that year, were fraudulent. To investigate these claims, we ran a public VozData project to unlock the data contained within telegrams from the primary elections. These telegrams, issued by the civil authority from each polling station, contained information relating to the coordination of each primary election e.g. the number of votes won by each party, how many monitors were present, etc. A government website listed more than 50,000 telegrams from primary elections around the country, published in a PDF format.
We partnered with three NGOs and four universities to launch the ‘telegramas’ campaign site. The PDF telegrams were organised according to province so that interested members of the public could help investigate the electoral information that related to their own locality.
While we were in the process of digitising the handwritten telegrams, the government introduced a user/password access system for the site containing the PDFs; but we had already uploaded the files to Document Cloud. We completed seven provinces, and analysed 10-20% of all remaining provinces. In a La Nacion article published in print and online, we reported that out of the 16,000 telegrams analyzed, 48% contained irregularities, from minor inconsistencies to huge inadmissible corrections.
As a result of our report, which was widely publicised around the world, Argentina’s national elections authority announced changes to the structure of telegrams for the general election. Director Alejandro Tulio cited VozData Primaries Telegrams Project and La Nacion’s structured database. The authority proposed changes to resolve the proven inconsistencies and problems presented by the previous system.
Going international: ‘Crowdata’ heads to New Zealand.
The New Zealand Herald launched a citizen-generated data project, Money in Politics, to track the donations and spending by each electoral candidate in the country’s 2014 general election. The Money in Politics project was launched via VozData’s open sourced code, Crowdata.Almost 900 documentswere uploaded containing information on returns, and the Herald asked their readership to help release and analyze the data.
Looking ahead, we hope that further international applications of Crowdata/VozData will help other countries collaborate with their citizen community to achieve greater political transparency and keep their governments accountable. Now that citizens can help us investigate, there is no limit to what we can achieve.