Phillip Smith
convening

Turbulent times in Venezuela, but good for #DataJournalism

Mounting economic problems highlight the opportunity for innovative journalism to make an impact.

(Scroll down for a 6 minute read)

At the end of nine exhausting yet exhilarating days spent in three Venezuelan cities, I watched 30 journalists present the start of at least eight different data journalism projects seeking to answer important questions about the country’s challenges.

Given what I saw in those presentations, it is going to be an exciting time for data journalism in Venezuela over the coming months and years.

Data boot camp for journalists

Last week, IPYS Venezuela – an organization that promotes and advocates free speech, investigative journalism, and access to information – with funding from the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives, hosted two two-day workshops for journalists and designers working in news organizations. The workshops focused on the skills generally grouped under the heading of “data journalism.”

To develop the workshops, I worked closely with two colleagues: Vancouver-based cartographic whizkid Hugh Stimson, and the Caracas-based award-winning investigative journalist Emilia Díaz-Struck. We strived to develop a curriculum that balanced learning and doing, and moulded the two days into a boot camp where all participants were expected to present their work at the end of the second day.

The three of us took turns presenting the typical workflow for an investigative piece that incorporates finding, exploring, and cleaning data, as well as several approaches to mapping and simple data visualizations. In the weeks leading up to the workshops, we put out a call far-and-wide for resources specific to Venezuela and, more broadly, Spanish-speaking Latin America, and the resulting Google Doc — collaboratively edited and contributed to by more than twenty different people (thanks NICARians!) — will hopefully continue to evolve as a treasure trove of starting points for journalists working in Latin America. (The workshop slides are also online here.)

Getting outside of Caracas

Following in the footsteps of a similar workshop-meets-boot camp in Caracas — one that brought the all-star cast of Alastair Dant (New York Times), Miguel Paz (Poderopedia, Knight Fellow), and Mariana Santos (Chicas Poderosas, La Nación Costa Rica, Knight Fellow) — Hugh, Emilia, and I strove to bring a bit of that magic, and more importantly those ideas, to journalists working in Maracaibo (home of the famous patacón) and Valencia (known for its love of meat).

Both Maracaibo and Valencia are large cities, each with metro populations of more than two million, and dually struggling with the same challenges that are faced in the capital, Caracas. Mostly, increasing rates of homicide that result in deserted city streets that are eerily quiet at night, as well as shortages of basic goods like milk, sugar, corn flour, paper, batteries, and car tires. It’s typical to see large queues forming in front of grocery stores early in the morning, as people prepare to wait several hours to increase their chances to purchase staples.

Equally pressing challenges are faced by many large businesses in Venezuela, as they grapple with a highly-controlled and outwardly dysfunctional foreign exchange and currency system that prevents many from obtaining the necessary US dollars or Euros required to do business abroad. Some recent examples include the sudden suspension of flights to Venezuela by some foreign airlines, as well as the refusal to sell tickets in Venezuela by several others. Similarly, in the past few weeks, several of Venezuela’s newspapers and magazines have been presented with a unique hurdle: the sudden unavailability of paper on which to print.

Transparency cloud with a silver lining

The opportunity for these workshops was to be able to share and demonstrate data journalism practices with working professionals in a country that has a history of great investigative reporting, and seems to need it more than ever right now.

Unlike the award-winning investigative data journalism team at La Nación in neighbouring Costa Rica where, according to Marianna Santos, they have fairly good access to information and transparency laws, journalists working in Venezuela face an almost Herculean challenges in obtaining electronic government records. The corruption tracking NGO Transparency International puts Venezuela in the 160th place out of 170 countries that they track for corruption and “other governance and development indicator.”

In fact, in the process of writing this post, I received news that there are violent clashes happening in the streets of Caracas — leaving several dead — as well as threats against journalists and the media (all tracked by IPYS Venezuela).

Nonetheless, more and more government information appears to be making its way online, though — like many countries — it’s more often found in HTML tables, PDFs, or poorly-formatted Excel documents than anything else. In some ways, the broadly understood “basics of data journalism” — i.e., extracting and cleaning data — are almost more directly applicable in countries like Venezuela, where the government has not moved toward open access and live data feeds.

Bright days ahead for Venezuela

At the end of the week, I felt like we’d made a significant impact. We’d shared a wide range of workflows and tools — how to search for an individual or company in Venezuela’s judicial system or other government sites, how to geocode addresses (even when inconsistently formatted) and spot check the results, how to extract text or tables from PDFs, how to pull data out of social media and quickly analyze the results, how to explore and clean the resulting data, and how to present those data point on maps for print or for Web, or through simple and context-providing visualizations — and we’d helped each team of participants through the process from concept to execution.

The results were impressive: a visual history of violence in Venezuela, the relationship between Venezuela and Columbia in the trafficking of cocaine, analysis of various epidemics and outbreaks, live-tracking of how long ships sit in ports waiting to be unloaded of much-needed staples like sugar, an investigation into the paper shortage facing newspapers, a Twitter analysis of candidates in a recent election, and deep search into the network behind several Venezuelans who were charged in the US for finance-related crimes, which was not well reported in Venezuela itself. I have no doubt that we’ll see many of these projects published online, or in print by many of the news organizations that took part.

Emilia and I also collaborated throughout the week to liberate the much-referenced CADIVI (Comisión de Administration de Divisas.) from its prison in a 150+ page PDF with more than 10,000 rows of data, which covers the companies that receive US dollars from the government (many thanks to Manuel Aristarán for his help with Tabula). After a fair bit of spot-checking and cleaning of the data, it’s now online as a very basic searchable, sortable, filterable data table with the source code online so that it can be improved.

To finish off the whole experience, I landed in Mexico City in time to attend a Hacks/Hackers meet-up where Mariana Santos and Giannina Segnini (La Nación Costa Rica’s investigative team, founders of Chicas Poderosas) were presenting the tour de force of what data journalism is today and what it could be tomorrow. It was the perfect ending to an already profound experience and left me with lots to think about.

In the coming weeks, I hope to be able to share some of the participants’ presentations, write-up some of the lessons learned, and reflect on some of realities for journalists working in Venezuela and Latin America more broadly. Drop me a line on Twitter if you have any thoughts.

About

Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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