Meet ICIJ’s first ever Neo4j Connected Data Fellow

We are proud to welcome Manuel Villa, who will spend six months helping ICIJ make sense of complex datasets and finding stories inside networks.

ICIJ, in partnership with graph database company Neo4j, are proud to welcome Manuel Villa as the first-ever Neo4j Connected Data Fellow.

The fellowship, announced in May, was inspired by the way graph databases strengthened reporting and helped journalists understand large data sets during ICIJ’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers investigation. The fellowship aims to bring a dedicated journalist or programmer to work with ICIJ for six months to make sense of complex data and find stories inside networks.

Manuel stood out from a pool of more than 50 candidates because of his combined experience in finance, journalism and data.

“ICIJ has been covering the offshore economy for the past five years and the importance of data in these investigations has been paramount. We’re looking forward to incorporating Manuel’s expertise to the team to keep exposing wrongdoing by connecting the dots in cross-border investigations,” said Mar Cabra, head of ICIJ’s Data & Research Unit.

Originally from Mexico, Manuel moved to Japan on an international student scholarship, shortly after obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in economics. He eventually got a job as a trader and later as a market risk manager at J.P. Morgan, where he worked for 11 years from Tokyo and New York. In 2014, wishing to “have a more significant impact on society,” he decided to leave the financial industry and venture into journalism.

Manuel graduated from Columbia University’s J-school last May, where he was a fellow of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. He then joined The Marshall Project as a data journalism fellow, where he published stories on mental health in prison and mass incarceration. Among his data projects, he used Python to download and parse more than one thousand PDFs from the United States Sentencing Commission, building a database of criminal sentences across all states going back two decades.

When it came to applying for the Neo4j Connected Data Fellowship, Manuel excelled during the interviews and in a technical test on SQL, Neo4j and ETL (extract, transform and load). He was also already familiar with ICIJ; he collaborated with us for one of his class projects, led by ICIJ member Giannina Segnini. We remembered him well, because he submitted the best bug report we have ever received: a video explaining step-by-step a login problem he was experiencing (the video included a cameo from his pet dog, who suddenly jumped in front of the camera).

Manuel used Neo4j in his investigations at Columbia and he presented them at GraphConnect Europein May this year, in London.

“Manuel is going to work on amazing and world-changing projects as the first Neo4j Connected Data Fellow at ICIJ,” said Emil Eifrem, CEO and co-founder of Neo4j.

“Leveraging data is vital to the future of investigative journalism. Through our work with ICIJ on the Panama Papers last year, we saw the global impact that graph database technology can have in the hands of investigative journalists and we’re looking forward to seeing what Manuel uncovers working with ICIJ.”

Manuel begins work today out of ICIJ’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. He is joining ICIJ’s award-winning Data & Research Unit, a multidisciplinary 10-person team of programmers and data reporters that uses technological innovation to enrich cross-border investigations with data analysis and reporting. He can be contacted at mvilla@icij.org.

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