Conference reveals growth and consolidation of data journalism in Brazil

Only a couple years ago, data journalism was starting to mature in Brazil, gaining recognition from the country’s media outlets and awards organizations as an effective method of revealing trends and producing material that would not have been possible before. Today, the country celebrates a consolidated and growing community. Brazil has become a meeting place for professionals from all over the world.

This became clear when more than 300 journalists and researchers from various countries met in São Paulo from Nov. 25 to 26 for the Brazilian Conference on Data Journalism and Digital Methods, more commonly known as Coda.Br. They spent the weekend rethinking work processes in dynamic discussion tables and workshops, taught by more than 40 professionals. Participants also shared experiences, including at the international level.

Natália Mazotte, director of Open Knowledge of Brazil, said the conference has created a space for data journalists to exchange experiences and gain more knowledge.

"This year's Coda has shown that there is a community in the field of data journalism that is interested and engaged in advancing this field and in sharing knowledge," Mazotte told the Knight Center. "It was fundamental even to advance the quality of journalism, in addition to having this space to meet, share and create community.”

As a multidisciplinary area, data journalism faces the challenge of bringing together professionals from different backgrounds. Among Coda's speakers were researchers from institutions such as the Brazilian Institute of Research and Data Analysis (IBPAD for its acronym in Portuguese) and IBOPE Inteligência, and from universities in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo and São Paulo. And journalists, of course.

"At the event we saw engagement between journalists and researchers. It is something to which we also have to advance and contribute a lot for the knowledge of journalism in the country,” Mazotte said.

Times for reflection and ‘getting your hands dirty’

Journalists and researchers found useful and novel tools during the workshops. An example is the Workbench platform, presented by Columbia University computer journalist Jonathan Stray. An online environment that combines scraping, analysis and data visualization, the tool, still in beta, experienced one of its first tests during Coda.Br.

BBC Brasil reporter Amanda Rossi spoke about the importance of good presentation of data in the workshop "#sexysemservulgar (Sexy without being vugar): How to make your data story attractive." According to the journalist, an interesting visualization is fundamental at a time when journalism fights for the attention of its readers against several other types of content. "We need to have this constant search so the information we are going to present is interesting, relevant, and sufficient to tell the human information that the data highlight."

In another workshop, Florência Coelho, editor of La Nación Data, shared her experience at the Argentine newspaper building databases with the help of citizen collaboration for the VozData platform. An example was the verification of electoral poll worker reports.

“We could have hired a company to digitize the reports, but we wanted to call together the students, the people who would cast their first votes. We wanted a feeling of ‘we're all in this together,’ as they would say in the [High School Musical] movie,” Coelho joked during the workshop.

Jennifer Stark, founder of British data visualization company Foxling, gave tips on how to write more transparent codes by sharing them on the GitHub platform. The advantages, she said, include helping colleagues and yourself to learn to program better.

"Reading the code thinking someone else will read it helps you to program better. Plus, it helps you see holes in logic you would not see before. Who has looked at an old code and thought, what was I doing?" she said during the workshop.

In addition to getting their hands dirty, Coda.Br participants also paused to reflect on data journalism’s challenges. Combating fake news and bots that spread false information was the theme of the conference’s opening discussion. The subjective biases of codes and the opacity of algorithms that mediate content were other problems discussed. The closing discussion looked to the future, with the aim of identifying which paths data journalism must take.

One of the speakers at the closing discussion, Spanish journalist Mar Cabra, recalled that data journalism is not just about "making cool graphics." For the leader of the Data and Research Unit of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists  (ICIJ), during the investigation of the Panama Papers, it was necessary to better develop storytelling for the data reports.

Cabra also recalled that investigation into Operation Lava Jato has increased cooperation between journalists from different Latin American countries, but stressed that more needs to be done than to react to document leaks. With increasingly bulky leaks, reporters need to work to connect the dots in order to form a larger perspective. "We're playing bingo in data journalism," she said.

During his talk, Jonathan Stray affirmed Cabra’s sentiments about the need for contextualization and a new language for data journalism. He noted, however, that the use of leaks has evolved a lot since Wikileaks. "Wikileaks is like the ex-boyfriend of the internet," he joked.

Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, professor Rosental Alves, gave a presentation on the emphasis on data journalism in the MOOCs (massive open online courses) organized by the Center.  "More than half of our online courses over the last five years have been about data journalism. We had 56,073 students in those courses," Alves said.

"An undeniable sign of growth of online journalism in Brazil is the success of the MOOC 'Introduction to Programming: Python for Journalists' that the Knight Center is currently offering, thanks to the support of Google News Lab. We have more than 2,500 students, from all Brazilian states," Alves added.

According to Mazotte the organization is already planning Coda.Br for next year. The objective is to repeat the formula, including workshops that encourage “getting your hands dirty,” reflection discussions and networking spaces.

"We will have a board of trustees that will help structure and rethink content. Let's get feedback on what worked and what did not," the director of Open Knowledge Brazil said.

The event was carried out in partnership with the Google News Lab  and has the support of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, as well as AbrajiLa Nación Data and the Python Software Foundation.

*Ed. note: Natalia Mazotte is a collaborator with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. Alessandra Monnerat, the author of the post, worked at Coda.Br.

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.