How ICIJ pulled off a large-scale, cross-border investigative collaboration

by Jessica Weiss
Oct 30, 2018 in Investigative Journalism

In early February, major newspapers around the world began to publish stories from a large-scale, cross-border investigation into global banking giant HSBC. A series of leaked internal bank records showed that the bank had helped its clients place more than US$100 billion into Swiss accounts to evade taxes, maintaining secret accounts for criminal traffickers, politicians, celebrities and more.

The “Swiss Leaks” investigation is the result of eight months of research, data wrangling and reporting managed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a Washington-based network of investigative journalists across the globe. The files were originally smuggled by former HSBC employee turned whistle-blower Hervé Falciani, and then given to French authorities in 2008. After the French tax authority launched an investigation, French newspaper Le Monde obtained material from the files and then contacted ICIJ.

To sift through the 60,000 files, ICIJ enlisted more than 140 journalists from 45 countries. The final product exposes private details on thousands of HSBC accounts, providing “a rare glimpse inside the super-secret Swiss banking system—one the public has never seen before,” according to ICIJ. It has created ripple effects, including an apology from a top executive conceding wrongdoing.

So how did ICIJ pull off such a large project? To get a glimpse into the process, IJNet recently spoke to ICIJ’s deputy director, Marina Walker Guevara, from Washington, and ICIJ data journalist and reporter Mar Cabra, from Spain. A selection of their responses is below.

IJNet: How do you form the team and get started on such an ambitious project?

Marina Walker Guevara: After we received the data early last summer, we at ICIJ devoted quite a bit of time to it ourselves. We looked at it, came up with regional and country lists of names and clients, always thinking about making the [future] work easier for local reporters. Then we called a one-day, in-person meeting at Le Monde in Paris in September with all the reporters that were part of the project. Whoever couldn’t attend was Skyped in.

Mar Cabra: We’ve been dealing with large leaks for the past two or three years already. In the first big project, Offshore Leaks, we learned that the minute you get reporters on board, they start asking a ton of questions. They’re anxious animals. So we had to work with the data ahead of time, for a few months, before telling anyone we had it. Our programmer Rigoberto Carvajal wrote a program to extract info from the flat files to be converted into a database. Then we ran a program that would identify all country-related information in that data. Thanks to that, we could produce lists for reporters, of people connected to their country. That gave the reporters something to work with.

MWG: The whole process is carefully orchestrated and managed--we give the reporters exclusive access, and then we ask them for some things in return. As long as we keep our commitments, they keep theirs, and we have clear rules and efficient tools for communication, it works. The in-person meeting adds a lot. There’s something about the trust you can create when you can see a person face-to-face, when you go out for a drink. I don’t think digital can replace all that.

IJNet: With a team scattered around the world, what tools facilitated the online conversation?

MWG: We can’t effectively collaborate over email, phone and Skype alone. That’s not efficient. So we use an open-source social network software called Oxwall, which we customized and called Voyager. It really has become the go-to place, like the internal Facebook page of our investigative journalism. This is where everything is going to happen--where we disclose important information, share any scoops we have or changes of direction. It offers things like threaded convos, files and pictures, and each member has their own page with a picture and info. The whole platform is searchable. Reporters made it something they check everyday, and it became a communal space where we openly shared with the entire team.

MC: For the data, we used two platforms. For document searches we used the open-source search platform Solr, which allowed us to to index and upload leaks on a secure platform, and then allow reporters to interrogate the leaks using keywords, country, year and other variables. On top of Solr, we also used Blacklight, which is a user interface that made the tool more friendly.

Then, later on in the process, as we kept working with the data, we realized that the connections emerging between people in the data were really the most important part. So we built a platform with the tool Linkurious that allowed us to display people and connections.

We made a manual on how to use the platforms. Online trainings were also key, to show the journalists how to understand files and share tricks.

IJNet: What about the security element when working with these sensitive topics?

MC: I’ve found journalists to be reluctant to use tools like encrypted email. They don’t understand it and think it’s difficult to install. So as a middle point when we had to communicate over email, we used a web service called Hushmail for communications.

Thanks to funding from the Knight Foundation, we’re currently working on the Global I-Hub project, which builds on Oxwall to make it better in terms of usability and security. [Here is a presentation on security tools that Cabra gave recently.]

IJNet: How important was it for ICIJ to be the “central command” of the process?

MWG: Very important. It was helpful to have a daily connection with the field through Voyager. We’re always checking in, plus we’re doing the reporting, researching and editing ourselves. And so we start realizing what the reporters’ needs are. We see ourselves as a service provider in a way. If collaborations are not well managed, the project can turn into a nightmare. If there’s not a clear chain of command, and no clear rules and understanding, you can have people doing whatever they want.

IJNet: What are some of the challenges you faced?

MWG: The legal challenges of this project were real. We’re touching tough issues. When you’re talking about a bank, you can’t afford mistakes. Are we being accurate? Are we being conservative? That’s what kept us up at night.

MC: Time zones are a killer. On the data unit, we’re in Washington, D.C., Costa Rica, Venezuela and I’m in Spain. So I start working around 4 p.m. my time and I work until midnight or 1 a.m. my time, so I’m online at the same time as my team. It’s a different way of working and it doesn’t work for everyone. When you’re in the same newsroom, you can pop in and ask a quick question. But for us it’s not like that. So we have to create personal and professional bonds online. I am a fan of Skype. Once you get used to it, it’s not so problematic to work remotely.

IJNet: What do you think the future is for collaborative projects like this?

MC: What we’ve achieved is pretty remarkable. Newsrooms are in an economic crisis. No newsroom right now--except for maybe The New York Times and a few others--have the capability to do something major like this at a global scale. But we’re showing it’s possible. We share data, we produce tools for communication, we share our stories and our interactives, to make it happen.

MWG: Sharing is not a journalists’ instinct--it’s just not the way we’ve traditionally worked. But we encourage it. We are trying to change the way investigative journalism works, because we think this is how it will and should be in the future. Business, police, criminals--they’re all working collaboratively in this way already. As journalists, we’re the only ones that are behind.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Gyver Chang under a Creative Commons license.