Lock and key (460 x 280) Credit: Image by JanetR3 on Flickr. Creative commons licence. Some rights reserved.
Argentina has not passed Freedom of Information legislation, it does not have established government data portals, it is not part of the Open Government Partnership, and is number 100 out of 180 in the 'corruption perceptions index 2011'.

But far from being deterred by the obstacles, Argentina has award-winning data journalism, a culture of sharing data journalism skills and a highly active Hacks/Hackers network.

"We see this as a huge opportunity to counter-attack and helping the open data movement," Angélica Peralta-Ramos, a computer scientist who is multimedia development manager and data journalism project manager at La Nacion, told Journalism.co.uk.

The team at La Nacion started in data journalism 18-months ago and consists of journalists, developers and designers, including a data miner, researcher, electronic engineer, a "Freedom of Information activist" and the news outlet's visualisations team.

The data team has been recognised in a number of awards, including from the Online News Association, an honorable mention in the Data Journalism Awards, the news outlet has received a 2012 fellow from the International Center for Journalists and is about to get a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews developer embedded in the newsroom.

We had to help activate information demand and start opening data ourselvesAngélica Peralta-Ramos
Facing a culture of limited and closed data, journalists realised "we had to help activate information demand and start opening data ourselves," Peralta-Ramos explained.

While the central government remains closed, Peralta-Ramos said, some ministries and two provinces have started publishing some data and five municipalities publish purchase orders in a move towards open spending.

Despite limited datasets, the team at La Nacion has been able to dig deep and uncover significant stories.
  • Revealing bus subsidies
In May Nieman Journalism Lab reported how La Nación had revealed that Argentina's government had spent more than $34 billion in eight years to subsidise the operation of private buses in the country.

Writing for Nieman, Costa Rican journalist Antonio Jiménez explained "the investigation not only uncovered that financial aid increased 1,965 per cent, but it also identified the 20 companies that benefited most from the plan".

The information was hidden in 285,000 records "scattered on government websites and in official documents", he added.

Peralta-Ramos told me that there were 900 PDF documents, each with 1,300 rows of data. Investigating the data "would have been impossible without transforming these PDFs into something more legible and that could be processed by computer", she added.

The team "opened the data", published it on its data channel and it generated eight or nine front page stories for the print title.
  • Measuring inflation
Inflation is a "controversial subject" in Argentina, with government-published statistics showing it to be lower than the rate calculated by independent consultants and the opposition.

La Nacion's approach "to open the information for everyone to use" has been to take statistics published by five provinces, the official inflation figures and those released by private consultants and the opposition, plus prices published by consumer associations. They have published the data on the data blog, and have used free data visualisations tool Tableau to allow readers to explore the statistics.

"We wanted to show the many ways of showing inflation or price variations with data," Peralta-Ramos said.

She added that within the past month one consumer association has been "pressed" to stop publishing and another consumer group ceased publishing approximately a month before. "We are very sad about this as we think we are blind if we don't have this data," she added.
  • Taking the census
When I spoke to Peralta-Ramos last Wednesday (17 October) she was at a colleague's house as they were taking "a day off" to hold a 'Censusathon', a day to look at census data.

The census data had been released in Excel and the team was planning to start to clean it and get it into a format that can be used next weekend when they are holding a Datafest in early November.

"We are very happy that the census data is published in the official statistics website, but it's not easy to go through it if you want to cross variables," she said.
  • Being open to sharing
A key to opening data in a relatively closed data culture is to share knowledge, skills and tools, not only between journalists, but also by networking with academics, consultants and those from NGOs, Peralta-Ramos said.

"We have to be very intelligent and share knowledge and skills. And we know that if we scale this, everyone is going to benefit."

Sharing takes place by meet-ups such as Hacks/Hackers and the Datafest, plus online in both Spanish and English via the data blog, the @LNDATA Twitter account, an open data catalogue and a YouTube channel.

"What we think that will happen is if we move fast and are very proactive as media, it will put data many steps closer to the people's hands. And knowledge will in turn produce innovation."

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