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2018 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom finalist

The Neglected Bridges

 

About the Project

Our exposition discovered that road bridges in Norway are not inspected properly, damages and vulnerabilities are not followed up according to rules and regulations, and these insufficiencies have contributed to the loss of human lives.

More than 17,000 bridges connect the road network throughout Norway. To ensure maintenance and safety of the bridges, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration (NPRA) has a management system for recording of annual inspections, damages and other matters.

Using public information laws, VG gained access to 90,000 PDF pages of inspection data. A MySQL database is the core of both research and presentation in this case. As we received the data from NPRA, we utilized various scripts in order to import the data into the database. First, we used the tool Pdftotext to translate the PDF files into plain text. Second, we had to make our own scripts – partly Python and partly PHP – to recognize patterns in the text files, extract the relevant data and write them to the database.

By crossing our own data with open source data on roads and accidents, we exposed 1745 bridges having damages that pose a risk to traffic safety. The past decade, insufficient bridge railings have been a decisive factor in 37 fatal accidents.

Our database and map reconstructs a governmental database and makes it available to the public.
For the first time, the Norwegian public can check the maintenance status of their bridges of interest.
More than 400,000 unique users visited the map in the first month – and findings from the map have become stories in national, regional and local news outlets across Norway.

By visiting and checking more than 100 bridges across the country ourselves, the team has been able to update the database with real life findings. The team’s designer happens to have a university degree in bridge engineering. He has played a decisive role in the team from day one.

We used the techniques of robot journalism to offer local and unique articles for each of the 430 municipalities in Norway. The “Brobot” (“bro” means “bridge” in Norwegian) also receives its data from the base.

Analyzing the records, we found that the regulatory rules of inspections were broken for more than half of the bridges. After big data analysis and traveling across the country visiting 104 bridges in 15 counties, we discovered that many of the most severely damaged bridges had been neglected for years.

The publication led to a national debate and an improvement project within the NPRA. VG’s exposé was debated in parliament. The minister of transportation demanded major improvements, and several bridges were urgently inspected and repaired due to VG’s publications.

Families who lost their loved ones in car accidents learned for the first time that damages on the bridges and railings were a major cause to the fatal outcome.

VG’s bridge project has inspired many other European news organizations to explore the bridge safety in their home countries.