In transnational journalism project, Costa Rican team visualizes links between thousands of offshore companies

By Alejandro Martínez

When the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) got its hands on a leak with millions of documents containing details on hundreds of secret companies in tax havens, it put together one of the most impressive groups of reporters ever assembled to participate in what the organization is already calling “the most ambitious cross-border investigative project in history." More than 100 reporters in 58 countries participated in examining the documents and have already produced several articles on what they have revealed.

But even with that many reporters working to produce stories, the information was so vast that a lot of it hadn't been looked at by the time the first articles were published. The Consortium decided to organize the information and open it to the public -- and chose Costa Rica's La Nación to take care of the job.

The result is a giant interactive database that can produce visualizations of the connections between more than 100,000 companies and secret trusts with their members, clients, accountants, attorneys, and shareholders throughout the world.

“It is not a data dump but a careful selection of information that can bring transparency and accountability to the historically impenetrable world of tax havens," said Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director of ICIJ, in a message announcing the launch of the new application.

The work is not only the culmination of an exhaustive effort to create order out of chaos, but also the most recent success story for the innovative team at La Nación and a reflection of the increasingly important place that Latin America is reaching in the field of data journalism.

Last year, the ICIJ obtained several databases that contained 30 years worth of information compiled by two companies (Portcullis TrustNet in Singapore and Commonwealth Trust Limited in the British Virgin Islands) dedicated to helping their clients create companies, trusts and back accounts in offshore tax havens.

Upon realizing the need to continue examining and organizing the information -- which contains about 2.5 million data -- the ICIJ contacted La Nación in November 2012 to help out.

“It was a pretty hard job. The databases were disorganized, without structure and with duplicated information," said Giannina Segnini, investigative chief for La Nación, in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

The ICIJ explained that "the relational databases came scattered over more than 320 tables and without an original dictionary to explain their relations [...] If the data remained that way, the true links and relations of each separate element would have never been disclosed through visualization."

The multidisciplinary team at La Nación --  which includes three reporters, two computer engineers and a data visualization expert -- worked for four months analyzing the information, eliminating duplicate entries, and integrating them in a format that would help show the links between thousands of companies and people mentioned in the documents.

The result was a database that is easy to navigate and creates circles in three different colors (which represent people, businesses, or addresses), connecting them with lines, and with detailed tables about the entities shown.

The database is available to the public and contains a function through which users can contact ICIJ journalists with ideas on possible leads. To date, the application has received more than 72,000 visits from North America and more than 28,000 from the rest of the continent. ICIJ has also received 400 messages from citizens or journalists from all over the world suggesting issues to look into.

The application is the most recent accomplishment from the data journalism team at La Nación, which has received international recognition for its innovative work in the field. In Costa Rica, it has produced special projects in issues such as education, health, corruption, and elections, with great repercussions in the country.

In 2010, for example, the team compared databases with the names of all the mayoral candidates in the country with others containing information on people with criminal backgrounds, back tax payments, and people unable to hold public offices. The cross-referencing of the information revealed that various candidates had been sentenced for a crime, owed taxes, or couldn't participate in elections.

The great benefit of integrating databases in the newsroom, Segnini said, is that it permits journalists to find leads not based on leaks, but on information analysis.

“The novelty of the project is that we consolidate databases everyday. Here we more compiled information than the government itself," Segnini said, who has worked for the newspaper's investigative team for 20 years, four of which she has been in charge of the current data team.

The work of Segnini's team with the ICIJ database is representative of the growth of data journalism in Latin America. From La Nación de Costa Rica to La Nación de Argentina, to independent projects such as InfoAmazonia or Poderopedia, each day more journalists are using these tools to tell better stories.

For Segnini, data journalism is still taking off in Latin America but it is catching on quickly in newsrooms across the continent. This is in part due to the simplicity of these tools, she said.

“The great thing about technology is that there is no need to make big investments to make a change. There is an enormous quantity of open source tools," she said. "The internet has democratized access to them and we can find creative ways to make these types of analysis from anywhere in the world."

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.

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