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Practical tips for building a data journalism mindset

If you don’t have the data, ask for it; if there are no rows and columns, create them.

Margot Williams, Venezuela

Si no hay, solicitar; si no hay filas y columnas, crear. / If you don’t have it, ask for it; if there are no rows and columns, create them.

Venezuela is a country in need of investigative journalism, done by reporters equipped not only with the right tools, but also the right mindset, particularly when it comes to data.

This philosophy of sourcing and structuring data was at the core of a recent data journalism workshop I helped coordinate in the country, where the media is often hamstrung by a lack of resources, and a perceived lack of government transparency. 

The workshop was run by Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), the non-governmental organization of journalists in Venezuela, and was one of a number of training camps the organization has run recently.

Together with ICIJ member Emilia Diaz-Struck, I traveled to Barquisimeto, in the state of Lara, 168 miles from Caracas, to help coordinate the July workshop, titled Data Journalism: new techniques and tools.

The workshop focused on tools for discovering data on the web, using spreadsheets and finding stories in the data.  Although Venezuelan journalists can claim a lack of data available due to the lack of transparency and increasing censorship, Emilia showed the paths to existing national data, to making information requests, and the value of tools for scraping web sites and transforming documents to data.

Practical tips

To introduce the concepts of data journalism in investigative reporting, Emilia shared the process described by ICIJ member Giannina Segnini:

  • Obtener datos / Get the data
  • Limpiarlos / Clean it
  • Analizarlos / Analyze it
  • Verificarlos / Verify it
  • Visualizarlos / Visualize it

For my part, I offered a presentation on advanced search skills for going beyond Google to search for public records and data, and a hands-on tutorial on spreadsheets skills.  And both Emilia and I worked to convey the mindset of collaboration: working within teams, working with programmers, working across borders.

When the teams reported back on the new tools and methods used to research their projects, the top search tip was the advanced Google “X-ray search,” which focuses a Google search on a specific web domain or type of information. For example, by typing (searching pages on Venezuelan government sites) and adding filetype:xls or filetype:xlsx (searching for Excel spreadsheets), the search will retrieve only information posted by the government in spreadsheet format.  The X-ray search of a specific web site also helps when the site itself does not provide a search function.

Data driven

I brought data from the US with possible stories for non-US journalists including data on green cards and work visas from the Department of Labor, data on pilot certifications from the Federal Aviation Administration, sources for flight data, and lobbying by Venezuela in the United States. 

We also introduced the Venezuelan journalists to ICIJ’s Offshore Leaks database with its country search and the Venezuela revelations co-written by Emilia.

Emilia provided an important database created in previous IPYS workshops with tools for converting an elusive PDF to text and the help of programmers. The CADIVI Abierta database now allows a search of the requests for foreign currency exchange, which is regulated by the Venezuelan government. The database also provides links to court decisions and official company information.

Story ideas

Our method was to think in terms of not just data but also the stories that data could help tell, and our goal was to inspire the participants to discover new stories by the end of the two-day workshop.

With the data in hand, on day one, the participants broke out into teams to brainstorm story ideas. After the session, and the next day, they continued to work on their stories, with increasing evidence of creativity and collaboration.  We spent the last hours of the workshop watching the presentations of each team. 

Among the stories roughed out by the participants were examinations of the backgrounds of Lara’s official government spokespersons; a look at new US green card applications for Venezuelan citizens; how currency exchange effects sports shoe imports; and a selection of purchases of New York City condos by notable Venezuelans. 

I was impressed by the use of social media and data visualization tools and also with the international mindset of the team from the most distant Venezuelan region. Their presentation compared visas for top US technology company jobs by country.  And I was really tickled to find that our hard-working Spanish/English interpreters – non-journalists – while in the hot booth in the back of the classroom had participated in the exercise and presented a story idea, too! 

About IPYS and the workshop

Margot Williams and Emilia Diaz-Struck.The workshop took place at Venezuela’s oldest newspaper, El Impulso (founded 1904), one of the publications challenged by newsprint shortages due to controls on currency exchange.  Journalists attended from Lara, from Caracas, and from the states of Barinas, Falcón, Mérida, Miranda, Táchira, Yaracuy and Zulia and included newspaper, magazine, broadcast and digital media, and university professors.

As part of its mission to help investigative journalists expose hidden information and strengthen the values of democracy in Venezuela, IPYS provides training workshops, and in particular has been offering training in data journalism for local journalists outside of the national capital in Caracas. 

Emilia has led several workshops around the country, and has invited foreign journalists and data experts to participate, including ICIJ members Paul Radu (Romania) and Mar Cabra (Spain), as well as Eirik Bakke (Norway), Phillip Smith (Canada) and Hugh Stimson (Canada). 

Smith came away from the workshop in February with optimism that it's an “exciting time for data journalism in Venezuela.” He produced a guide to data resources in Latin America, which is available as a Google Doc.

IPYS also advocates for press freedom and access to information in a society where those values are currently at risk.  Violations of press freedom in Venezuela are documented in a database on the Institute’s website (in Spanish).

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