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Data journalism project hopes to trace Argentina's desaparecidos

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A data journalism project hopes to show what happened to thousands of people who disappeared during the violent rule of Argentina's military dictatorship.

The fate of these desaparecidos, or disappeared, will be tracked by Mapa76, an open software platform started in Buenos Aires about a year ago. Currently in the works, the project will analyze data to find patterns or common destinations of missing persons who initially didn’t seem related, but met the same tragic end.

The idea for Mapa 76, whose name is a nod to the year the military swept into power, came about at a Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires meetup, where members discussed extracting data from public documents from court trials to create a global timeline or map of these life stories--and, they hope, to uncover new connections in the process.

According to the Associated Press, about 13,000 people are officially listed as dead or missing as a result of the "Dirty War", although human rights organizations put the toll at nearly 30,000. Thirty-six years after the coup, court cases have generated a wealth of information, including fresh testimonies and evidence.

Mariano Blejman, creator of the project and editor-in-chief of Suplemento No, told IJNet that Mapa76 will use data mining, big data and data visualization to reach its goal.

To mine information contained in court documents, Mapa76 will include three modules to extract, query and debug contextual data and data visualization on maps and timelines.

The software it uses, built on Ruby, will sift through documents using defined search patterns such as personal names, organizations, places and dates. When it finds words that match the query, it will funnel that info into a database. Blejman expects the work to result in a timeline such as this chart explaining the plot of multi-episode films like "The Lord of the Rings" or "Jurassic Park" or this one of Napoleon's campaign in Russia.

Blejman hopes the platform will serve as an exportable model for any journalism project that uses large amounts of data, from social conflicts to complex legal cases.

"Data journalism is used to interpret large volumes of data and requires certain tools to do so, tools that we journalists don’t have available or don’t know how to use," he said.

Co-founded by Blejman, Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires recently hosted a hackathon to work on this and other projects.

It may take time for Mapa76 to chart new territory, but Blejman is determined.

"If you have an obsession, never let it go," he said.

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