Cuban journalist uses creativity to dig for information and maintain database for other media

Any journalist who ever made a report using their country's Law of Access to Information likely has a few complaints about protocols and difficulties imposed by the State in the disclosure of public information.

They should know, however, that it could be worse. In Cuba, not even the most basic statistics, such as macroeconomic indices, are available or reliable. And poor internet quality and limitations hinder deeper research. Still, data journalism lives on the island, whose government censors information at its leisure.

Barbara Maseda criou o Proyecto Inventario para servir de base de dados para jornalistas cubanos independentes (Foto: divulgação)

Barbara Maseda created Proyecto Inventario to serve as a database for independent Cuban journalists (Photo: Courtesy)

For a year, Cuban journalist Barbara Maseda has been running Proyecto Inventario, whose mission is to publish any and all available data about Cuba. It is intended to serve as a database for consultation and use by other independent journalists writing about the island.

“The idea could have been to create another media outlet, but the project is designed not as a media outlet that covers news. We do not produce the finished journalistic product, but the project is designed as what would be a data unit, a department of a media outlet from another place. [...] The idea is to be a service for those who do journalism,” Maseda told the Knight Center, speaking from the U.S., where she currently resides.

According to Maseda, independent outlets do not have access to any government sources, which simply ignore them. Not even government contractors are allowed to provide information, which even impairs basic verifications of simple reporting. In addition to providing the databases it can, Proyecto Inventorio also aims to develop the culture of data use in Cuban independent journalism, which is a way of overcoming the blockade from official sources.

“As is done in the United States, in Brazil, in England, in Mexico, [where] there has already been a lot of experience in recent years in the need to specialize in working with data, because countries are generating a lot of data and this is a new ability [the journalist] needs to interrogate a new type of source. [...] In Cuba, this has not happened spontaneously. We have not experienced the process in which the government and institutions are digitized, and a huge volume of information is being generated that we need to cover [...] Cuba is a place where there is a lot of secrecy regarding all kinds of information,” Maseda said.

Even the most basic and seemingly unimportant information to be considered State secrets is difficult to access. Such as, for example, the date of birth of the parliamentarians who make up the National Assembly of Cuba. Inventorio maintains a database of the 603 parliamentarians of the current legislature (two seats are vacant). The ages were published in the official press managed by the parliamentarians and are part of the database, being updated year by year.

"In Cuba there is no law on access to information. And at the level of data publication, what we understand as data is also not published. Statistics, data summaries to which we do not have access are published [...] This is very little. If you tell me as a government that there are 300 traffic accidents in Havana in the year, I have no way of disaggregating this data by municipality, date. They don't give you details," the journalist said.

The site emerged from the journalist's experience at Stanford University as a John S. Knight Fellow. She was later selected for the JSK Impact Partnerships program. In addition, the first year was still funded by personal savings, while Maseda seeks other sources of investment to expand its reach.

"The project is a prototype, a sample of what could be. [...] In this second year of existence I have to change my strategy a bit. As I don't have financing, I have to do everything myself, I do social media, the website, which consumes a lot of time and I cannot dedicate myself [only to data]."

Meeting the needs of Cuban journalists

Proyecto Inventario is the result of a failed attempt by Maseda to work with data on the island. Besides the lack of public databases, the internet connection was and still is a major obstacle for journalists to do research and use tools that are available online. According to the journalist, access to the internet is in public and shared networks. So, she makes her entire database available for download.

"Independent journalism is very disconnected from the Internet. Connecting to the Internet is a punctual act, which is done for an hour, two hours. But it is not connected every day. The project is designed for this world. [...] Everything is posted to download because I know that a Cuban journalist will not work online in Google Sheets. The person will take the data home and look at it in an offline application," Maseda said.

As Inventorio is not intended to act as a media outlet, the site encourages the use of data by other independent vehicles, with due credit. There have been reports on the new Cuban constitution, on protests against the high price of the newly opened mobile internet on the island, and on Cuban travel abroad. Data isn’t a centerpiece in any of them, but it contributes to understanding information.

"I am glad to have created this point of reference. Within a year, two years or three, someone will be able to go back [to our data] and compare them [...] This will help us improve, it is part of the process of professionalization of Cuban journalism, of taking advantage of tools that are perhaps normal in other places," Maseda said.

Journalist José Raúl Gallego Ramos, from the website El Toque, is one of those journalists who have been using data collected by Inventario in his reports. He acknowledges that, in addition to the scarcity of official data, there is also a specific difficulty for Cuban journalists in working with structured information.

"We journalists need reliable data on which to build and carry out our work and analysis. Unfortunately, our training has gaps in issues related to the recovery of information in times of big data, and the existence of a project like Inventario not only helps overcome some information gaps in Cuba, but our own gaps as journalists in the matter of information retrieval," Gallego Ramos told the Knight Center.

José Raúl colabora com El Toque e usa dados de Inventario em suas reportagens (Foto: divulgação)

José Raúl collaborates with El Toque and uses data from Inventario in his reports (Photo: Courtesy)

He believes that as more Cuban journalists know how to work with data, more such tools will be incorporated into reports produced on the island, even though the State maintains its policy of secrecy. This is because it will be possible to seek and analyze information about the country that is produced by other institutions.

"Above all, it is important to learn not only the use of data, but to know where to look, since it is not very likely that in the short term there is an explicit transparency policy in Cuba, but every day there is more information online, from Cuban institutions, but also from foreign institutions that are related to Cuban institutions and those are important sources of information," he said.

Creativity in obtaining data

The scenario imagined by Gallego Ramos is already a reality for Inventario. To circumvent the scarcity and difficulty of accessing official Cuban government data, Maseda relies largely on secondary sources, such as research from foreign institutions, other international journalists and governments that have transparency laws.

"Cuba's trade with Brazil, for example. Cuba does not publish commercial information. If I want to know how much chicken Cuba buys from Brazil per year and the government does not tell me, I use the Brazilian source. We benefit from the open data of other countries to get data about our country. Difficulties push us to find a way out. So it's not that it's bright, we just don't have other methods," the journalist explained.

Through official public data, Maseda was able, for example, to know how many Cubans travel to Russia annually. The figure was part of a report that said that many Cuba merchants buy goods in Moscow to resell on the island.

More recently, with the arrival of mobile internet on the island, Maseda has been experimenting with information obtained from the public. One recent work that was widely used is about interruptions in the supply of electricity.

"There was a big wave of blackouts in Cuba and the government promised that they were not going to cut electricity in a programmed manner to save petroleum in the summer, because it is cruel. Summer, in Cuba, is very hot. Then, people start to see that the electricity is cut and it goes, it goes, it goes. There were many isolated complaints on social media, and then we organized a collection campaign for blackouts on Twitter where we asked people if the lights went off in their homes, to tell us in which municipality. [...] We collected more than 400 reports,” recalled Maseda, who points out that she initially resisted this kind of survey because it is impossible, through it, to make more accurate statements. “It is to capitalize on the energy that people have to denounce something and tell about it, in the quantitative sense."

In some cases, information is provided by the government itself through its official channels.

In November 2018, when Cuban doctors working in Brazil through an agreement with the Pan American Health Organization began to return, the official press reported on it prominently. At the time, the Cuban government decided to terminate the partnership following statements by then-president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who announced that he would require the revalidation of the diplomas of professionals, who were previously exempt.

Maseda noted that with each flight, the number of returning doctors was reported and recorded them. "This was an example of unexpected data for me. There were 32 return flights. One day, when the first flight occurs, which was a pride for the revolution, I see a note in the Communist Party newspaper that includes the number of doctors that will return on the flight. They will report the number of doctors that will return on each flight. In the end, it was understood that not all would return.”

On Flight 30, the Communist Party failed to say how many doctors had returned. Maseda then completed the data with the average of those on the 29 previous flights. And she concluded that one fifth of Cuban professionals did not return.

“We never aspire to completeness. We can almost never have the happiness of having everything detailed and complete, but you feel you are quite close, and this is a good start," she said.