Nieuws - A look back at the Data Harvest Conference 2012
BRUSSELS - From the 6th till the 8th of May 2012 the European Data Harvest Conference brought together the cream of European data journalism in Brussels.
For this second edition of the conference on data journalism, organised by Journalismfund.eu, Wobbing.eu and Farmsubsidy.org, about one hundred data journalists with a total of twenty different nationalities gathered at the Erasmushogeschool in the Belgian capital. The aim was to witness and practice new research methods, learn how to find stories out of unstructured information and get access to hidden data by using specialised techniques. Those varied from sending a decisive email to an authority and claiming your Freedom of Information rights to using sophisticated Internet tools such as Google Fusion. The conference was streamlined into four tracks: wobbing, journalism lab, get the tools and farmsubsidy.
Wobbing is becoming an ever more widely used method of doing journalism. A significant portion of this year’s conference was therefore devoted to the wobbing track. Specialists from all over Europe had been invited, resulting in some prominent names giving a total of ten sessions on wobbing. Those names included Martin Rosenbaum (UK), the BBC’s FOI expert, Brenno de Winter (The Netherlands), Dutch journalist of the year 2011, Staffan Dahllöf, co-editor of Wobbing.eu, Mar Cabra (Spain), one of the driving forces behind the FOI searcher database tuderechoasaber.es and Blaz Zgaga (Slovenia), co-author of the trilogy In the Name of the State who wobbed thousands of documents to uncover Slovene government’s illegal trade of arms during the UN embargo in the Yugoslav Wars. The presence of Indian WOB specialist Shyamlal Yadav made the conference even more international.
Rosenbaum, who has his own blog on the BBC website, was one of the first to speak. He reminded the audience of what wobbing is essentially about: it’s not about trying to catch one huge fish, but rather going after a lot of small ones. Illustrating his point, Rosenbaum continued with examples of FOI cases the BBC did, such as England’s voting deal with Qatar for their 2018 World Cup bid, the use of fake names by jobcentre workers and the failing follow-up of the penalty points system for drivers in Manchester.
Yadav talked about some of the stories he had worked on for his newspaper Indian Express and for which he had made use of India’s RTI (Right to Information) Act. He showed how an effective use of wobbing can have an impact on the decisions and policymaking of a country’s government, in his case the Ministry of Finance. After Yadav had wobbed, processed and published information on the excessive foreign travels by government officials, the Ministry decided to significantly reduce the budget. Other stories: the funding of political parties, corruption amongst civil servants, travel destinations of ministers and lapsed life insurance policies.
Visualization of abstract data by interactive graphics and maps is becoming increasingly important in journalism. It turns a bunch of figures into something understandable and comprehensible without requiring you to write code. During this second edition of the Data Harvest Conference the number of programmers and coders who attended increased significantly compared to last year. This evolution shows that data journalism is getting more sophisticated and requires more teamwork. In the journalism lab track and the get the tools track coders and journalists could meet and exchange ideas.
Stefan Candea (Romania) coordinated the journalism lab track. Stressing that journalists and programmers should work together, Candea invited an international mix of data analysis adepts to share their data and approaches in person or via Skype. Emphasis was on finding partners to work out your story with and on the singularities of journalists and programmers to consider when working together. Ides Debruyne (Belgium) and Brigitte Alfter (Denmark) covered one session to talk specifically on how to fund investigative stories.
Get The Tools
What can you do with applications? Anders Pedersen (Denmark) used Google Fusion Tables to visualize pharmaceutical companies that sponsored doctors and clinics. To do this he used Excel to construct a database with public data of medicines and companies and linked this with Google Fusion to get a clickable map. Peter Andersen (Denmark) presented his project Kamera Spotter and came up with a map that showed surveillance cameras. He questioned the balance between safety and being informed. Crowdsourcing contributed to the results.
BBC information research expert Paul Myers (UK) specializes in tracking down people on the Internet. By using advanced search options and Boolean operators in Google and on social network sites, you can find a lot more information in a shorter time. Duncan Campbell (UK) stressed the importance of backups and of securing your vital data by encrypting it. The HTML format is easier to search through than PDF. It is also important to inform yourself about the use of advanced OCR tools. Journalists do not use them, companies and lawyers do and when you get access to their archives, you can save a lot of time if you know how to handle these tools. A tip for more advanced journalists: before searching the content of a website, index it first and then make use of a spider program.
In the farmsubsidy track working experiences were exchanged about the EU Financial Transparency System and the European farm subsidies. The FTD database displays beneficiaries of yearly grants or contracts committed by the Commission. The figures can be downloaded and used for further research. As is usually the case, some information is masked for security reasons. Two other databases that are research favourites are the European Regional Funds and the Research Funds.
On www.farmsubsidy.org journalists can find new data and updates on EU money spent on subsidies for farmers among EU countries. The project constitutes an important FOI case. As Farmsubsidy.org’s Jack Thurston (UK) puts it: “We are experiencing a backlash against open government at the EU level and much of it is founded upon a misplaced sensitivity about personal privacy. These are subsidies to farm enterprises, not medical records. We believe they should be out in the open. Both to guard against fraud and abuse and to promote a better understanding among citizens of how the Common Agricultural Policy works. At this moment, when the future of the CAP is being decided, transparency is needed more than ever.”
Data Harvest Conference 2013
About fifty sessions were given in total during the conference, varying in content and approach, but all of them equally interesting. The conference was concluded by Brigitte Alfter, who thanked the speakers and participants. There was some time left to briefly look forward to the Data Harvest Conference 2013, which will take place from the 9th till the 11th of May. If the third edition of the conference continues along the same lines as the second one, there is little doubt that it will be an even bigger success.
Written by Hans Loos and Rafael Njotea