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June 11 2013

17:00

OpenData Latinoamérica: Driving the demand side of data and scraping towards transparency

“There’s a saying here, and I’ll translate, because it’s very much how we work,” Miguel Paz said to me over a Skype call from Chile. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s illegal. Here, it’s ‘It’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.””

Paz is a veteran of the digital news business. The saying has to do with his approach to scraping public data from governments that may be slow to share it. He’s also a Knight International Journalism Fellow, the founder of Hacks/Hackers Chile, and a recent Knight News Challenge winner. A few years ago, he founded Poderopedia, a database of Chilean politicians and their many connections to political organizations, government offices, and businesses.

But freeing, organizing, and publishing data in Chile alone is not enough for Paz, which is why his next project, in partnership with Mariano Blejman of Argentina’s Hacks/Hackers network, is aimed at freeing data from across Latin America. Their project is called OpenData Latinoamérica. Paz and Blejman hope to build a centralized home where all regional public data can be stored and shared.

Their mutual connection through Hacks/Hackers is key to the development of OpenData Latinoamérica. The network will make itself, to whatever extent possible, available for trouble shooting and training as the project gets off the ground and civic hackers and media types learn both how to upload data sets as well as make use of the information they find there.

Another key partnership helping make OpenData Latinoamérica possible is with the World Bank Institute’s Global Media Development program, which is run by Craig Hammer. Hammer believes the data age is revolutionizing government, non-government social projects, and how we make decisions about everyday life.

“The question for us, is, What are we gonna do with the data? Data for what? Bridging that space between opening the data and how it translates into improving the quality of people’s lives around the world requires a lot of time and attention,” he says. “That’s really where the World Bank Institute and our programmatic work is focused.”

A model across the Atlantic

Under Hammer, the World Bank helped organize and fund Africa Open Data, a similar project launched by another Knight fellow, Justin Arenstein. “The bank’s own access-to-information policy provides for a really robust opportunity to open its own data,” Hammer says, “and in so doing, provide support to countries across regions to open their own data.”

Africa Open Data is still in beta, but bringing together hackers, journalists, and information in training bootcamps has already led to reform-producing journalism. In a post about the importance of equipping the public for the data age, Hammer tells the story of Irene Choge, a journalist from Kenya who attended a training session hosted by the World Bank in conjunction with Africa Open Data.

She…examined county-level expenditures on education infrastructure — specifically, on the number of toilets per primary school…Funding allocated for children’s toilet facilities had disappeared, resulting in high levels of open defecation (in the same spaces where they played and ate). This increased their risk of contracting cholera, giardiasis, hepatitis, and rotavirus, and accounted for low attendance, in particular among girls, who also had no facilities during their menstruation cycles. The end result: poor student performance on exams…Through Choge’s analysis and story, open data became actionable intelligence. As a result, government is acting: ministry resources are being allocated to correct the toilet deficiency across the most underserved primary schools and to identify the source of the misallocation at the root of the problem.

Hammer calls Africa Open Data a useful “stress test” for OpenData Latinoamérica, but Paz says the database was also a natural next step in a series of frustrations he and Blejman had encountered in their other work.

“Usually, the problem you have is: Everything is cool before the hackathon, and during the hackathon,” says Paz. “But after, it’s like, who are the people who are working on the project? What’s the status of the project? Can I follow the project? Can I be a part of the project?” The solution to this problem ended up being Hackdash, which was actually Blejman’s brainchild — an interface that helps hackers keep abreast of the answers to those questions and thereby shore up the legacy of various projects.

So thinking about ways that international hackers can organize and communicate across the region is nothing new to Paz and Blejman. “One hackathon, we would do something, and another person who didn’t know about that would do something else. So when we saw the Open Data Africa platform, we thought it was a really great idea to do in Latin America,” he says.

Blejman says the contributions of the World Bank have been essential to the founding of OpenData Latinoamérica, especially in organizing the data bootcamps. Hammer says he sees the role of the bank as building a bridge between civic hackers and media. “More than a platform,” he says it’s, “an institution in and of itself to help connect sources of information to government and help transform that data into knowledge and that knowledge into action.”

Giving people the tools to understand the power of data is an important tenet of Hammer’s open data philosophy. He believes the next step for Big Data is global data literacy, which he says is most immediately important for “very specific and arguably strategic public constituencies — journalists, media, civic hackers, and civil society.” Getting institutions, like newspapers, to embrace the importance of data literacy rather than relying on individual interest is just one goal Hammer has in mind.

“I’m not talking about data visualization skills for planet Earth,” he says. “I’m saying, it’s possible — or it should be possible — for anybody that wants to have these skills to have them. If we’re talking about data as the real democratizer — open data as meaningful democratization of information — then it has to be digestible and accessible and consumable by everyone and everybody who wants to access and digest and consume it.”

Increasing the desire of the public for more, freer data is what Hammer calls stoking the demand side. He says it’s great if governments are willingly making information accessible, but for it to be useful, people have to understand its power and seek to unleash it.

“What’s great about OpenData Latinoamérica is it’s in every way a demand-side initiative, where the public is liberating its own data — it’s scraping data, it’s cleaning it,” he says. “Open data is not solely the purview of the government. It’s something that can be inaugurated by public constituencies.”

For example, in Argentina, where the government came late to the open data game, Blejman says he saw a powerful demand for information spring up in hackers and journalists around him. When they saw what other neighboring countries had and what they could do with that information, they demanded the same, and Argentina’s government began to release some of that data.

“We need to think about open data as a service, because no matter how much advocacy from NGOs, people don’t care about ‘open data’” per se, Paz says. “They care about data because it affects their life, in a good or bad way.”

Another advantage Bleman and Paz had when heading into OpenData Latinoamérica was the existence of Junar, a Chilean software platform founded by Javier Pajaro, who was a frustrated analyst when he decided to embrace open data platforms and help others do the same. Blejman said that, while Africa Open Data opted for CKAN, using a local, Spanish-language company that was already familiar to members of the Hacks/Hackers network has strengthened the project, making it easier to troubleshoot problems as they arise. He also said Junar’s ability to give participating organizations more control fit nicely into their hands-off, crowd-managed vision for future day-to-day operation of the database.

Organizing efforts

Paz and Blejman have high hopes for the stories and growth that will come from OpenData Latinoamérica. “What we expect from these events is for people to start using data, encourage newspapers to organize around data themes, and have the central hub for what they want to consume,” Blejman said.

They hope to one day bring in data from every country in Latin America, but they acknowledge that some will be harder to reach than others. “Usually, the federated governments, it’s harder to get standardized data. So, in a country like Argentina, which is a federated state with different authorities on different levels, it’s harder to get standardized data than in a republic where there’s one state and no federated government,” says Paz. “But then again, in Chile, we have a really great open data and open government and transparency allows, but we don’t have great data journalism.” (Chile is a republic.)

Down the road, they’d also like to provide a secure way for anonymous sources to dump data to the site. Paz says in his experience as a news editor, 20–25 percent of scoops come from anonymous tips. But despite developments like The New Yorker’s recent release of Strongbox, OpenData Latinoamérica is still working out a secure method that doesn’t require downloading Tor, but is more secure than email. Blejman also added that, for now, whatever oversight they have over the quality and accuracy of the original data they’re working with is minimal: “At the end, we cannot control the original sources, and we are just trusting the organizations.”

But more than anything, Paz is excited about seeing the beginnings of the stories they’ll be able to tell. He plans to use documents about public purchases made by Chile’s government to build an app that allows citizens to track what their government is spending money on, and what companies are being contracted those dollars.

Another budding story exemplifies the extent to which Paz has taken to heart Craig Hammer’s emphasis on building demand. In Chile, there is currently a significant outcry from students over the rising cost of education. Protests in favor of free education are ongoing. In response, Paz decided to harness this focus, energy, and frustration into a scrape-a-thon (or #scrapaton) to be held June 29 in Santiago. They will focus on scraping data on the owners of universities, companies that contract with universities, and who owns private and subsidized schools.

“There’s a joke that says if you put five gringos — and I don’t mean gringos in a disrespectful way — if you put five U.S. people in a room, they’re probably going to invent a rocket,” says Paz. “If you put five Chileans in a room, they’re probably going to fight each other. So one of the things — we’re not just building tools, we’re also building ways of working together, and making people trust each other.” Blejman added that he hopes the recent release of a Spanish-language version of the Open Data Handbook (El manual de Open Data) will further facilitate collaboration between hackers in various Latin American countries.

With a project of this size and scope, there are also some ambitious designs around measurement. Paz hopes to track how many stories and projects originate with datasets from OpenData Latinoamérica. Craig Hammer wants to quantify the social good of open data, a project he says is already underway via the World Wide Web Foundation’s collaboration with the Open Data for Development Camp.

“If there is a cognizable and evidentiary link between open data and boosting shared prosperity,” Hammer says, “then I think that would be, in many cases, the catalytic moment for open data, and would enable broad recognition of why it’s important and why it’s a worthwhile investment, and broad diffusion of data literacy would really explode.”

Hammer wants people to take ownership of data and realize it can help inform decisions at all levels, even for individuals and families. Once that advantage is made clear to the majority of the population, he says, the demand will kick in, and all kinds of organizations will feel pressured to share their information.

“There’s this visceral sense that data is important, and that it’s good. There’s recognition that opening information and making it broadly accessible is in and of itself a global public good. But it doesn’t stop there, right? That’s not the end,” he says. “That’s the beginning.”

Photo of Santiago student protesters walking as police fire water canons and tear gas fills the air, Aug. 8, 2012 by AP/Luis Hidalgo.

August 16 2012

16:00

Plaza Pública aims to challenge and improve Guatemala’s journalistic culture

It’s not uncommon for news sites in the United States to evolve into a series of verticals: technology, politics, celebrity news, sports, and the like.

In Guatemala, Plaza Pública is also built around a series of verticals. But here, they’re equity, environment, social cohesion, cultural diversity, and corruption.

“We audit the private sector as part of our mandate,” site director Martín Rodríguez-Pellecer told me. “Traditional media does not cover these issues because they’re afraid companies would remove ads.”

Plaza Pública stands out for a few other reasons. It’s a digital native, but reluctant to set its pace against the 24-hour news cycle. It’s mainly funded by a private university, but it’s seeking a national audience.

The site’s name and concept were inspired by Jürgen Habermas’ idea of the public sphere, where private citizens come together to discuss matters of public relevance. Plaza Pública, which translates to “Public Square” in English, wants to be the place where such conversations not only take place (it has 80 blogs) but where they’re provoked by news stories.

In January, for example, it published an investigation that revealed minors were working on sugar plantations owned by the Guatemalan president’s Chamber of Agriculture. “In Guatemala, as in many other countries in Latin America, media orgs restrain the ‘public interest’ to public officials and public institutions, when it really goes beyond them,” Rodríguez-Pellecer said. “It also includes the links between businessmen and policy-makers, the media-politicians relations and controversial social issues.”

Rodríguez-Pellecer says traditional media have ignored those dynamics. So when it comes to political coverage, Plaza Pública doesn’t just report how an elected official votes. The site also features data visualizations meant to help identify voting patterns between leaders, parties, and around certain topics.

Investigative data journalism is a big part of what Plaza Pública does, though its editors prefer to call it in-depth precision journalism. There’s a reason for that distinction: “During the past 20 years, any sensationalism is considered ‘investigative reporting.’ We try to do a less incendiary journalism,” Rodríguez-Pellecer said.

His team is a group of 15 reporters, coders, designers, and photojournalists. “We all have been in traditional media, but we got tired of not being able to do the journalism that we wanted,” said Rodríguez-Pellecer, who worked seven years as a reporter for Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s most influential newspaper. The newsroom also gets help from 10 students from different universities and in disciplines ranging from archeology to political science and journalism.

Two-thirds of Plaza Pública’s $300,000 annual budget comes from Universidad Rafael Landívar, a private university administered by the Society of Jesus, the Christian religious order. The funding model raises questions about editorial independence: How can a news organization promise autonomy when its main funder is an institution with very clear stances about so many controversial topics?

“Since we started, we [have made it] clear that we were not going to report on the university, the Pope, or the Society of Jesus,” Rodríguez-Pellecer said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re not critics of some of the bishops’ points of views on topics like sexuality and gay rights, for example.” In turn, the university does not get involved in the editorial process: “We pick the topics we cover,” he said. But the institution does have the editorial board’s ear. “Always, those differences are discussed after the publication, not before. We appreciate very much the independence they gave us.”

Plaza Pública, which has 65,000 monthly visitors, in part borrows its model from projects like News21 at Arizona State University, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University London, on-campus newsrooms with access to university resources.

Like News21 and TBIJ, Plaza Pública is a nonprofit. It cannot sell ads because of universities’ tax-exempt status in Guatemala, but the goal is to eventually — at least three years from now — operate within a legal framework that would allow the sale of ads and maybe even data. “We also want to sell services related with the databases we’re building,” he said. Rodríguez-Pellecer says it’s almost impossible for a digital news outlet in Latin America to rely solely on ad revenue. Even successful ventures like El Faro in El Salvador and La Silla Vacía in Colombia have had to diversify their revenue streams. Plaza Pública has ruled out a paywall, but it’s actively thinking about ways to add more revenue channels. (It also receives grant money from groups like Open Society Foundations and Friederich Ebert Stiftung.)

“We think citizens should contribute voluntarily, too, if they want to get journalism that is on the people’s interests side,” Rodríguez-Pellecer said.

Photo of the Palace of the Captains-General in Antigua, Guatemala, by Ray Metzen used under a Creative Commons license.

April 25 2011

16:00

A great resource on new Latin American journalism

You may not know about Revista, the magazine about Latin America produced by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies here at Harvard. It covers a range of issues relating to the region, from architecture to violence to dance.

But if you’re at all interested in contemporary Latin American journalism, you should check out the Spring/Summer 2011 issue, which is all about the subject. Check out the full table of contents, but here are a few pieces — all written by past Nieman Fellows — that stood out to me:

Raul Penaranda on why he started a newspaper with an iPad-driven business idea

Monica Almeida on press censorship in Ecuador

Alfredo Corchado on the personal risks taken by reporters in Mexico

Graciela Mochofsky with an overview of recent innovation in Latin American journalism

— Juanita Léon on online journalism in Colombia

What’s remarkable about this group (if I may brag about our Nieman Fellows for a bit) is that so many of them are proving to be among the region’s most important journalism innovators, starting their own news outlets in what has sometimes been criticized as a conservative media culture: Penaranda with Página Siete, Mochofsky with el puercoespín, and Léon with La Silla Vacía. Give the issue a read.

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