Brazilian journalists recommend useful tools for investigative reporting with data

By Eric Andriolo

In the making of investigative reports, journalists need to work with different sources, codes, and data of varying formats. Online, there are tools available for creating and manipulating databases, but the question is knowing which are the most useful for investigative journalism. The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas asked this question to four Brazilian reporters.

Most of them agreed that the key is to know how to use the basic tools. For Thiago Prado, journalist for the magazine Veja, spreadsheets (like Excel) are more important than the plethora of software available online. Marcelo Soares, a reporter specializing in data journalism, has the same opinion. "Really knowing how to use the templates -- Excel, Open OfficeGoogle Docs -- is where everything starts. If you know how a template works, you know what to do to show more complex displays," he said.

An alternative to traditional software is the Libre Office template, with a similar interface to that of Excel, but is open software, available for most operative systems -- Windows, Linux, and Mac -- and with a friendly format that allows for importing and exporting data from different platforms.

For José Roberto de Toledo, specialist in computer assisted reporting, and current president of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism (Abraji in Portuguese), the template alone isn't enough. "You need a program that puts together different tables that have common columns." They recommend the File Maker software, although there also is AccessYour.

To extract or compile data, there is the OutWit Hub Pro, which has free versions available. Although it is slow, it can be used by anyone without programming experience.

Google also offers useful tools. Toledo recommended Google Refine to "clean" tables in a niftier way, and Google Fusion Tables, to combine different data templates.

To display data, among different software and platforms available online, the journalists recommended the classics: Many Eyes, which creates graphics, and Wordle, which creates word clouds for analyzing texts.

Diego Escosteguy, political publisher of the magazine Época, chose the Evernote software, which uses the "personal database" as a fundamental tool for his work. The reason for choosing this program is because of its versatility. It saves data from all the investigative stages. "From notes to interview recordings with sources, going through the collection of online information and up to the first drafts of more complex stories," he said.

The software can also code text notes, is relatively reliable, and works in different platforms, including iPhone and iPad. All the information is in tune with the cloud; it is available to the user that has access to the Internet.

Another interesting tool for data management is CKan, developed by Open Knowledge Foundation, a type of file for projects that makes it easy to find, share, and recycle data.

For Toledo, "what would be ideal is a web application that could collect all the information of a work team and that could be collectively used, but for this you would need a programmer." While we wait for the ideal tool, we can combine the already existing tools to do work with simple and dynamic databases, and facilitate investigative work.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.