New data journalism project in Panama aims to promote culture of transparency in the country

Daily obstacles motivated Panamanian journalists Ana Graciela Méndez and Alfonso Grimaldo to create El Tabulario – a project, launched at the end of May, which collects, analyzes and disseminates public data with the aim of promoting transparency in the country.

As journalists from Panama’s main media outlets, Méndez and Grimaldo had enormous difficulties in obtaining simple information, such as how many schools are in the country or what they spend per student in the public school system. Grimaldo covered economy and business, and Méndez was an investigative reporter. It was like being stuck at a dead end every day.

"It was very frustrating. Every time we wanted to find a number, we had to juggle a thousand things. Sometimes that meant reading hundreds of reports to find a specific piece of data, or we had to go to government institutions to find the information. Panama has a transparency law, but 99 percent of the information we were looking for, by law, should be easily accessible and were not,” she said to the Knight Center.

In addition to being difficult to find, Panamanian public data is often contradictory, according to the journalists. "For example, the number of students enrolled per year. I can present you with three official reports that give me three different numbers for this unit of data for 2014,” Grimaldo explained to the Knight Center.

Another problem is the irregularity in the collection and publication of public data. According to the journalists, each government designates a new head of statistics and adopts a different internal manual for the field, making it almost impossible analyze information in a continuous way.

"Then, a number that was counted under one government is not counted under the other," Grimaldo said. And even when they are collected, the data is published without a common logic, he complained.

"Every minister has his or her own agenda. For example, the Public Works Ministry publishes reports when it feels like it, every three months, every month, it does not make any sense. We have to take these quarterly reports and separate them to attribute them according to the months they correspond with," Grimaldo said. In many cases there is also no possibility of a long-term analysis, because public bodies do not offer historical series.

"Panama’s transparency law establishes that the payroll has to be published. But what do they do? The February payroll goes up and then February ends, that month’s payroll comes down and March’s goes up. So, yes, they obey the law, but there is no historical record of the government payroll. It is not enough to know what they paid, to who, in February. To really understand how our government is moving and where the money from our taxes goes, you have to have a historical idea of the state payroll," Grimaldo said.

For all these reasons, Méndez and Grimaldo decided to create a project to help journalists find public data. With El Tabulario, reporters gather information collected from more than 30 Panamanian institutions, creating a huge repository of data. There is information on economics, health, education, among other areas. The project is also the first in the country to offer a historical record of government payroll.

To populate El Tabulario, the journalists collect data actively published by government institutions, but also request information by different methods. When they receive a response, it does not always come in a suitable and modern format.

"Each ministry is its own story. Sometimes you have to go personally and receive the data in USB or in hundreds of printed pages, sometimes by mail or directly downloaded from public websites. And nothing comes ready. Ana, for example, had to manually transcribe the campaign donation data from a chart that was full of watermarks and other obstacles. Sometimes it's a tedious and annoying job, but someone has to do it," Grimaldo said.

After organizing the data, the journalists verify the information for possible errors. With the help of basic data analysis tools, reporters find inconsistencies and come into contact with the institutions responsible for the numbers.

"We ask: Why is there a mistake here, why does it not match? And we work with them for a solution. Since we are journalists, the fact that there is a data inconsistency is already a story," Grimaldo said.

Leaving the job

Before El Tabulario, the two journalists were already thinking about creating their own project. "We learned a lot in the press, but we also realized the opportunities that could exist outside the newsroom," Grimaldo said.

Three years ago, the reporter left his job at a Panamanian newspaper, while Méndez completed a Masters degree in journalism at Columbia University, in the United States. The two joined a third partner, Gaspar García de Paredes, who was from the technology field. The group developed a pilot project, Panamá Vota, to cover the 2014 presidential elections in the country.

With the success of the site, the journalists decided to create Nueva Nación, a newsletter with the main news of the world and of Panama, sent three times a week to thousands of subscribers. El Tabulario emerged as an arm of Nueva Nación, and added value to the newsletter. This is because the data reports made based on El Tabulario are published in the newsletter.

The project gained momentum when Méndez received the Brown Institute's Magic Grant, from The Brown Institute for Media Innovation. In 2015, El Tabulario received a strong financial contribution from the institution, which also supported the development of the project with consultancies and technological resources.

Until they received funding, however, the journalists had to sustain their projects with their own resources. El Tabulario was presented at a launch event in Panama at the end of May, in which journalists learned how to use the database and other tools.

Today, Méndez lives in the United States and works on the project with Grimaldo, who lives in Panama. Both are fully dedicated to El Tabulario, while studying new ways to finance or monetize the project.

"We are discussing different models, but we have not yet decided exactly what route we want to take. But we have decided that a basic value of our project is that we never charge for public information that belongs to all citizens. We want it to be independent and open-use," Méndez explained.

Culture of transparency

One of the main objectives of El Tabulario, according to its creators, is to change the mentality of the Panamanians. They argue that Panama already has the necessary laws and institutions to promote transparency, but cultural change is still lacking.

"Beyond being a legal issue, it is cultural. The official does not yet understand that the data he produces belongs to the citizen. He simply feels that the information belongs to him, for his own use, for the entity or for the president or whoever the governing authority is. Citizens are not seen as a basic user of the law," Grimaldo said. For the journalist, it is exactly the opposite. The citizen pays for the production of the data and should be the main target audience.

Méndez also says that access to information is essential so that individuals can understand their own country and better choose their representatives. "The most important thing is that people feel empowered to make informed decisions and that is only done with real and transparent access to the information that belongs to them," she said.

Grimaldo added: "People think transparency is the cherry on top of a pie of good state management, but it's false. Transparency is the fundamental basis upon which political stability is constructed over time. Without information, leaders are indisputable and thus separate from their base of control, which is the people."

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.