Peruvian journalists release book of investigative research tools in the era of massive data

Update (Aug. 30, 2016): A digital version of "The Swiss Army Knife for Journalists" is now available online in Spanish and English. An interactive version in Spanish is also online.

Original Note (May 10, 2016): Since Peruvian investigative journalism site Ojo Público was born two years ago, its four founders knew that in addition to their investigations, they wanted to offer a space to share knowledge and experiences that could be useful to colleagues not only in Peru but throughout the region.

So, since the site’s creation, they have been involved in various activities such as workshops and trainings, and have even published explanations about how they produced special projects.

However, on May 5, they fulfilled their promises in a more wide-reaching manner when they released the book “The Swiss Army Knife for Journalists: digital investigative tools in the era of Big Data” at book store El Virrey in Lima, Peru. Its digital version will be available soon.

The book summarizes two concepts: the change in mentality of journalists transitioning to the digital world and the main digital journalism tools used in large projects that “help Spanish-speaking journalists to make their own projects,” explained David Hidalgo, journalistic director and co-founder of Ojo Público and co-author of the book, in conversation with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

“We have chosen what we believe are the best cases of investigations with big data, with data analysis, that have been a great reference,” said Fabiola Torres, editor of the data analysis unit and co-founder of Ojo Público and co-author of the book, who also spoke with the Knight Center. “In these two years, there have been cases that have inspired us to do our own research. That spirit is also in the Swiss Army Knife.”

The authors explained that the book also seeks to tell how Peru has experienced growth in the number of digital media, creating an established community thanks to the initiatives of independent journalists and of other groups like programmers that have joined the community.

But, with this book, they especially seek to relay their experience in the transition from traditional press and to explain why this change is necessary.

“The first chapter is an introduction about why you should change your mentality and why you, an investigative journalist with all the traditional tools and experience, should learn these new tools,” Hidalgo said.

In that regard, Hidalgo recalled the story of Glenn Greenwald who was reluctant to learn how to encrypt messages when Edward Snowden first contacted him.

It's a story that, in his opinion, reflects the need for journalists to change their mindset to consider that when writing a story, they should not only worry about looking for information, but also other issues like electronic security, the massive scale of data, the complexity of narrative that requires retelling on different platforms in a comprehendible way.

Therefore, the selection of the tools published in the book is based in the authors’ own experiences, those that have been most useful, for which the adoption has been less complex, as well as the experiences that media in other countries have put into practice. They also took advantage of Torres’ participation in conferences in Norway and South Africa, to name a few, in which she interviewed journalists around the world.

Staying true to their idea of free and open knowledge, their first book “The Reporter’s Swiss Army Knife” is not for sale, but is available for free in workshops and conferences to colleagues and journalism students. They also hope to soon have an English version.

But their goals for knowledge sharing don’t stop there. For example, over these two years they have managed to obtain information to develop a methodological guide with questions that arise when doing data journalism projects, Torres said. The purpose is to answer questions for other journalists who need help with these projects.

They also plan to publish a fact-checking manual linked to their project Ojo Bíonico, which is among the growing number of data verification initiatives in Latin America, Hidalgo said.

Ojo Público: 2 years of investigation and innovation

“A life's project of four friends and colleagues that at some point met in the newspaper El Comercio.” This is how Hidalgo described Ojo Público. The journalists who left the newspaper for various reasons, found in this space not only a place to publish stories of length and complexity that a were not found in the traditional press, but also to make a “laboratory of innovation,” as described by Torres.

“In two years, I think that I’ve intensely lived five years of things that I wouldn’t have learned [at another place],” Torres said. “But besides that, we have never abandoned the idea [of creating] the best content and that makes us hold ourselves to various exacting standards; each time we publish something we are satisfied with what we’ve done.”

They have published on themes of health, corporate power, human rights, the mining industry in Peru, all using different applications and platforms.

“Our education was fast and from scratch,” Hidalgo emphasized, adding that they explained the objective of the media outlet when they first started looking for engineers to code the site. Currently, the group of the four founding journalists has been joined by two programmers who make up the core team of Ojo Público.

Among their upcoming projects is one about the justice system in Peru related to the assets of judges, as well as a transnational research investigation that will be released in the coming days.

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.