In Argentina, La Nación's new app reveals public information about officials' assets

by Maite Fernandez
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous

Updated September 30, 1:36 pm EST

More than thirty volunteers, over a year of work and 611 paper records, scanned and uploaded online by hand. One by one.

Those were the lengths to which La Nación newspaper's data journalism team LNData and three NGOs went to create the news application Declaraciones Juradas Abiertas, the first data application in Argentina that makes public officials’ affidavits of property and financial assets available to citizens.

The application, launched Sept. 28, includes 611 affidavits from 260 public officials, including the members of President Cristina Fernández’s cabinet, legislators and judges. It contains detailed information about their financial assets and properties, salaries, vehicles (cars, boats, motorcycles), loans, debts, stocks and shares over the years.

The app allows users to search and visualize the data by government branch, public official, type of goods, value of the goods, year and other parameters. Users can also view and download the original documents.

By law, elected officials and other public officials are required to fill out a statement declaring their assets when they assume their public duties, to update that information every year they’re in office and to submit a final statement shortly after they leave office. While the records are public and their disclosure is an important tool for preventing corruption, the information was previously not easily accessible to ordinary citizens in Argentina.

The new app makes the information accessible to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. Just compare this PDF affidavit from a house representative and the same information on the app.

The project was a team effort between La Nación and pro-transparency NGOs Poder Ciudadano, Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia and Fundación Directorio Legislativo. Manuel Aristarán, a programmer and a Knight-Mozilla Open News Fellow working with La Nación, also collaborated on the project.

The news organization’s idea to work with NGOs on the project was inspired by ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow and data journalism guru Justin Arenstein during his visit to Argentina at last year’s inaugural Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires Media Party. Sharing lessons he had learned from his work in Africa, he recommended that data journalists work jointly with other institutions like NGOs to release and contextualize data. Working strategically with NGOs became part of the LNData agenda.

“I realized how NGOs are important players in the open data ecosystem (as producers and also actors who demand open data from governments),” said Florencia Coelho, new media research and training manager at La Nación.

For La Nación, it was critical to work with these NGOs because they were the organizations that already had the officials’ affidavits in hand.

“This was a time-saver,” said Romina Colman, an activist for access to public information in Latin America and a member of the LNData team. “If we had to submit a request for these affidavits from scratch, we wouldn’t be able to launch the website today.”

The development of the project began more than a year ago. The process involved many brainstorming meetings between La Nación and more than 30 volunteers from the NGOs; requesting affidavits from government offices; building a database; data entry; and multiple fact-checking sessions, which they called “Chequeatones.”

“All affidavits were on paper and we had to scan them and upload them to DocumentCloud. One by one. The data were entered manually, by people looking at a sheet of paper and typing [the information] onto a spreadsheet on a computer,” Coelho said.

Those weren’t the only challenges they faced. Argentina’s Public Administration office frequently refused to release some records, and delayed the release of others. What’s more, there were many discrepancies in the data. The affidavits the officials had to fill out didn’t follow the same format across all government branches. The assets were valued differently, using different parameters, and many officials had savings in different forms of currency (euros, American dollars, Uruguayan pesos, Argentine pesos in different currencies). Many of these details are reflected in the app and addressed in its FAQ section.

Aside from the fact that Argentina doesn’t have an access to public information law yet, the release of the app and the details of its information comes at a particularly critical time. A new law regulating public officials’ affidavits was recently passed, which will omit asset information of the children and spouses of public officials in future affidavits, reducing the amount of information previously available, Coelho said.

To build the app, the team used Ruby for the backend and HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript for the frontend, while the database was created in MySQL. In the next iteration, they plan to add more affidavits as they become available and to allow users to download the datasets in CSV, JSON and XML. La Nación has already published a few news stories they found from mining the data, and there will be more in the upcoming days, Coelho said.

For Coelho one of the biggest lessons learned this time was the value of teamwork and the collaboration with NGOs. “Coordinating this teamwork effort allowed us to obtain a final product that would be impossible without the union of each of its parts,” she said.

Maite Fernández is IJNet’s managing editor. She is bilingual in English and Spanish and has an M.J. in multimedia journalism from the University of Maryland.

La Nación is a recent partner of the ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellowships. Global media innovation content related to the projects and partners of the Knight Fellows on IJNet is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and edited by Jennifer Dorroh.

Photo of LN Data team and volunteers at work on the app, courtesy of Florencia Coelho.