Spreadsheet with pen
Credit: By Jorge Franganillo on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Argentinian news outlet La Nación has picked up an award for its data journalism project revealing open statements of assets from key public officials in the country.

Declaraciones Juradas Abiertas won the category for 'Best Data Journalism Application or Website' at the Global Editors Network data journalism awards, held in Barcelona at the GEN Summit yesterday (June 13).

Argentina does not yet have Freedom of Information laws, and although annual statements revealing assets belonging to executive, legislative and judicial public officials are available, it is distributed only in printed formats.

To overcome this, La Nacion teamed up with three NGOs and more than 30 volunteers to manually enter data from scanned PDFs into a spreadsheet to create a searchable dataset.

The resulting interactive news application enables anyone to search for individual statements of assets via DocumentCloud.

La Nacion screengrab
Screengrab from La Nación's Declaraciones Juradas Abiertas interactive

Florencia Coelho, new media researcher and training manager at La Nación, explained that the project, which took more than four months to complete, was only possible through the outlet's collaboration with the three NGOs (ACIJ, Poder Ciudadano and Fundación Directorio Legislativo).

"What we discovered is that, joining together, we reach much further than if you keep all of the work and credit for yourself," Coelho told Journalism.co.uk.

Predictably, the project was not without its challenges. The documents detailing individuals' assets differed in format depending on the type of public official, meaning they had to be "normalised" before being added to the dataset, explained Coelho.

The type of currency used in the statements also differed, from Argentinean and Uruguayan pesos to Euros, while the team also had to take into account the rate of inflation over the years.

And of course the manual input of such a vast amount of data – more than 1,500 asset statements from more than 800 public officials – required frequent and detailed checks to ensure accuracy.

With help from the NGOs and volunteers, La Nación held six days of "check-a-thons" with prizes for some of the biggest typos discovered, in order to keep up morale.

To enable collaborative working, the team used Google Docs and Spreadsheets in addition to the project management tool Trello. 

The application, which was launched on 28 September last year to coincide with International Right To Know Day, allows users to search and download information about the financial assets and properties for candidates in Argentina's 2013 legislative elections, as well as other key members of President Cristina Fernandez's cabinet.

Shortly before its publication, the President Fernandez passed a new law which reduced the amount of information public officials had to disclose in their annual asset statements, including details of assets belonging to spouses or children.

Coelho believes this new legislature was granted after government officials became aware of "the power" of La Nacion's news application, creating a loophole which may be be used to disguise financial corruption.

However, she is satisfied that the project now has "historical" relevance for cases of corruption that may be tried in court.

"We have two ways of seeing this - the glass is half empty, or the glass is half full," she said.

"We are disappointed that the president discovered the power of our news application and diminished what information was required [from public officials].

"But for future court prosecutors for corruption, all our efforts will serve to show [evidence of assets] up to 2012."

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