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How Argentina's La Nación opened Senate expense data to the public

How Argentina's La Nación opened Senate expense data to the public

Jessica Weiss | May 08, 2014

The data sets emerging during our current age of big data aren't always usable by the masses--or even accurate.

One Argentine newspaper is working to change that by empowering the public to verify and understand just what the country's elected leaders are spending public money on, from airline tickets to per diems.

La Nación’s VozData initiative, which launched in late March, allows users to review and rate more than 6,500 Argentine Senate spending records from 2010 to 2012. All were originally published on the official Senate website. (The name "VozData" is a play on the concepts of data and giving the public a voice.)

Project participants have already collectively sorted through 4,175 documents, accounting for Senate spending of more than AR$11.7 million (more than US$1.4 million) on travel, more than AR$8.4 million (more than US$1 million) in petty cash and about AR$6.4 million (more than US$790,000) on per diems.

“We’re putting available data closer to the public, and letting [the public] interact with and transform the data, and then open it,” said Momi Peralta, project manager of La Nación Data. “We want to prove that citizens can help answer a demand for more ‘usable’ public information.”

Anyone with a registered account on Facebook, Google+ or La Nación’s website can help revise and sort documents. After registering, users click “Release a document” to begin reviewing. They work from the original PDF document plus a software-generated text document that allows for easy copying and pasting of data. A form prompts the user to fill in information in categories that include expense type, contractor/company, expenditure details and total. The site also asks users to rate the importance of the documents they review.

La Nación produced a video tutorial to show how to use VozData. The print newspaper ran a full page of infographics explaining the project as well as two full-page ads to promote the initiative.

To ensure accuracy, each document is processed three times by three different users. Then, the LNData team fact-checks all the information and enters it into a database, where the data can later be cleaned up and made available for download.

“Making available, in massive quantities, the transparency of state acts will stimulate new initiatives that will result in the reduction of public spending and a lower level of corruption,” wrote journalist Bernardo Basombrío in a La Nación op-ed. “Civic engagement in this kind of activity brings greater satisfaction in the exercise [of citizenship] … [and] brings democracy to a greater public interest: the management of our resources.”

The project was inspired by initiatives like ProPublica’s Free the Files and the Guardian’s MP's Expenses. The LNData team, which was launched with assistance from former ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Sandra Crucianelli, created VozData with help from La Nación’s 2013 and 2014 Knight-Mozilla Open News Fellows.

To test the site before public launch, LNData hosted "Data Day", an event which was attended by more than 50 people from academia and NGOs. Participants tested the application and provided feedback on usability, exchanged ideas to improve the platform and discussed crowdsourcing.

Peralta hopes this project will inspire media in other countries that, like Argentina, lack a Freedom of Information Law and convince them they can make a difference. “We must make data easily accessible by a big audience to accelerate change and make open data available for everyone,” she said.

To learn more, visit VozData.

Image courtesy of Flickr user opensource.com under a Creative Commons license.

Jessica Weiss is a Bogotá-based freelancer.

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