The Art and Science of Data-Driven Journalism

Working Without Freedom of Information Laws

Four different perspectives that I heard from journalists in Spain, Italy, Argentina, and South Africa highlighted some of the challenges of practicing data-driven journalism in countries without strong right to information laws, noting it’s difficult but not impossible. “Spain is a country lacking a Freedom of Information Act and an accountability culture,” wrote Javier de Vega, communications director for Fundación Ciudadana Civio, a Spanish foundation that supports open data and data journalism in Spain, in an email. “We are the last big country in Europe to pass a freedom of information law, though a very unambitious text is being studied by the Congress.”Long before data journalism entered the mainstream discourse, La Nación was pushing the boundaries of what was possible in Argentina, reporting on a country without a Freedom of Information Act Law. If you start exploring La Nación’s efforts to go online and treat data as a source, you’ll find Angélica “Momi” Peralta Ramos, the multimedia development manager who originally launched in the 1990s and now manages its data journalism efforts.191an antidote to budget crises in newsrooms.192perspective is grounded in experience: Peralta’s team at La Nación is using data journalism to challenge a FOIA-free culture in Argentina, opening up data for reporting and reuse to holding government accountable.193data-driven stories to date, including:

  • Argentina’s Official Advertising Funds Distribution 2009”2013: Friends, Politicians, and a Stylist.194
  • Public Officials’ Salaries and Assets for Reporting and Accountability.195
  • Monitoring the New Media Law in Argentina 2009”2013.196
  • VozData: The Senate Expenses (II).197
  • 2013: Legislative Elections in Argentina.198
  • Argentina’s Senate Expenses 2004”2013.199 Peralta has seen the context for La Nación’s work change in recent years:To take just one example, consider the inflation scandal in Argentina. Even The Economist removed our [national] figures from their indicators page. Media that reported private indicators were considered as opposition by the government, which took away most official advertising from these media, fined private consultants who calculate consumer price indices different than the official, pressed private associations of consumers to stop measuring price, and releasing price indexes, and so on.Regarding official advertising, between 2009 and 2013, we managed to build a data set. We found out that 50 percent went to 10 media groups, the ones closer to the government. In the last period, a hairdresser (stylist) received more advertising money than the largest newspapers in Argentina. Last year, independent media suffered an ad ban, as reported in the Wall Street Journal: “Argentina imposes ad ban, businesses said.”200Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. We still are without a freedom of information law.Journalists in Italy face a similar information landscape. Elisabetta Tola, an Italian data journalist, wrote in to share her work on a series of Wired Italy articles that featured data on seismic risk assessment201schools.202for schools, a feature that embodies service journalism and offers more value than a static map.203Risk for Schools]Guido Romero, the science editor at Wired Italy who published the work, shared more of the backstory behind the project via email.“In Italy there are some 50,000said Romero. “Protezione Civile, the Italian FEMA, estimates about 22,500overall Italian school population is about eight million (students + teachers + personnel) so you can do the math of how relevant this problem is.”The backstory behind the Wired Italy project highlighted a key challenge in Italy that exists in many other places around the world: How can data journalism be practiced in countries that do not have a Freedom of Information Act or a tradition of transparency on government actions and spending?The Italian government, while well behind the pace set by the United Kingdom, has made more open data available2042011.205Italian Ministry of Education released was a list of school buildings published online.As I recounted earlier, Tola and her team aggregated or created the rest of the data used in the project, from scraping and processing PDFs of spending data from regional government websites, then adding geolocation in cooperation with a local developer.Romero said in our interview:When we started looking into this last June [2012], the first door we knocked on was the Ministry of Education, notably their Office for School Buildings and Safety, as our sources inside the Ministry had told us they did have the data. Their non-response turned into a bitter attack to the magazine when we wrote that the very same ministry advertising itself as a groundbreaking pioneer of open data did not release information relevant for millions of families. Mario Di Costanzo, the Director of the Office for School Safety, did give us an interview.206but would personally oppose any release of parts or all of them as “revealing which schools are at risk would be dangerous.”As is the case around the world, culture and freedom of information laws matter, particularly with respect to access to data needed to hold governments accountable and audit their programs. Proactive, selective open data initiatives by government focused on services that are not balanced by support for press freedoms and improved access can fairly be criticized as “openwashing” or “fauxpen government.” Data journalists who are frequently faced with heavily redacted document releases or reams of blurry PDFs are particularly well placed to make those critiques. That currently appears to be the case in Italy.Romero said, “Data journalism is not impossible over here”in fact, Elisabetta and myself believe there are great opportunities, but having a very poor access law and, even worse, a deep rooted culture of non-disclosure in the public administration makes data journalists’ work pretty hard.” He continued, “That said, there is a growing movement for reforming our access law (I’m personally engaged in that with but ópen data' is a word very much frowned upon by reporters, as it’s led to little relevant work.”