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2014 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom finalist

Opening and Reporting on Public Officials Salaries and Assets in Argentina

 

About the Project

LA NACION decided to fight for transparency in public officials salaries and declaration of assets as we feel that even in a country without FOIA, journalism and citizens must know and share what they know about how politicians earn their money, and how they compare with others or with other periods. This reporting and tool is now being used by investigative journalists in Argentina, from other media besides LA NACION, and from TV, and is helping detect cases of corruption, regarding public spending and companies owned by official´s relatives or friends.

So we started from scratch, we knew we needed lots of help and collaboration. We partnered with three transparecy NGOs: Poder Ciudadano (Local Transparency International chapter), Fundación Directorio Legislativo and Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ), each one requested statements of assets of one branch covering Judicial, Legislative and Executive powers.

After the requests of statements that were made to the Anticorruption Office (OA) and other offices, more than 1.500 statements of assets were obtained. All the information came in print and in boxes. Each file was around 5/7 pages long.

We developed a news application (now winner of Data Journalism Awards 2014,Data Journalism Application or web site Category) and manually typed, checked in six full day check-a-thons, and scanned all the statements, with more than 30 volunteers. The project lasted for more than one year and then we opened this data for other to reuse (CSV, JSON, XML).

The interactive application that allows users to read a large volume of information and do comparisons, with an easy visual interface, includes the possibility to explore every original PDF document in detail, using DocumentCloud. Besides, it was developed as mobile responsive.

The database and the site were designed and developed by LNdata team and lanacion.com´s multimedia team, along with Manuel Aristaran, Knight Mozilla Opennews fellow, who optimized the application and the searching tool. The challenge was to transform the boring visual and complex statement forms in a friendly graphical and user friendly interface. The two big bets were iconography and color criteria, both worked as facilitators when interpreting the assets declared. There were two large reading levels: at first glance the reader can recognize the evolution and kind of property declared without the need to interact with the application, and in a second instance, you can find out through the roll over on each icon, details of all assets.

In march 2013, President Cristina Fernandez announced during the opening of the Annual Sessions of Congress 2013 that her government would promote a national law regarding asset declarations for all public servants.

”Finally, we will also send a bill that has to do with total transparency to the public regarding the wealth statements of all of us in the authority of the Government, in the Executive, Legislative or Judicial. Because information is very selective to public knowledge as it is access to asset declarations”. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. March, 1st, 2013″. (*)

This new law regulating public officials’ affidavits omits asset information of the children and spouses of public officials in future affidavits, reducing the amount of information previously available. The family asset situation is vital to create a chart of the current patrimony of a public servant for an illicit gain investigation. The upside is that more public officials will publish online in the Anticorruption web site from now on, although this new site also is PDF bases, asks for ID, and has a captcha, and as the documents come from a database, they are not indexed by search engines. Besides, documents are named all the same, so if you download one PDF to identify it you have to rename it yourself and as there isn´t a list of contents, you have to guess what´s inside the site.

Impact and stories:

To aggregate stories, we integrated the news application with the open dataset and Lanacion.com‘s CMS using a TAG that gathers all the stories that are coming out about these Declarations of Assets or salaries of the president and ministers we also requested and opened.

Besides news impact, we wanted to change status quo towards the access to public information in Argentina, where skepticism kills data initiatives and transparency is so much needed to investigate corruption.

So we demonstrated that open initiatives and collaborating with others can make the what seemed impossible, now possible.

The Open Statements of Assets News Application, that hosts affidavits previous to the new Law that diminish quality and quantity of information, has a historic value for transparency and accountability because the information up to 2012 has been published including relatives disclosures, discrimination of assets instead of category amount totals, etc.

We also demonstrated that media can play a role in opening data, moving public records closer to the citizens and help transform distant boring information into a friendly usable app and dataset that puts government´s accountability in everyone´s hands.

No excuses.