Por Causa uses data journalism to analyze the roots of poverty

byMaite Fernandez
Jan 9, 2014 in Miscellaneous

In the ephemeral world of the web, where a new digital guru or social media expert seems to be born every minute, Gumersindo Lafuente is able to make the rare claim of having a long career as an innovator in digital media.

He was involved in the digital side of two of the most important newspapers in Spanish: El Mundo, where he was head of its digital section, and El País, where he oversaw its digital transition.

But one of his most significant projects was an independent effort, Soitu.es, which caused quite a stir in the media landscape at the time. Soitu, a news site launched in 2007 that focused heavily on the social-sharing aspect of news and made an innovative use of technological tools, was highly praised and won several awards (including two awards from the Online News Association), but the venture closed in 2009 because it lacked funds.

Now, Lafuente is launching Por Causa.org, a foundation that produces data journalism projects on issues related to inequality and poverty.

Por Causa is a collaboration among Lafuente; poverty and development expert Gonzalo Fanjul; human rights expert Isabel de las Casas; and Carlos Martínez de la Serna, a data journalism reporter and now a Knight-Stanford fellow. Data visualization pioneer Alberto Cairo, who worked with Lafuente during his time at El Mundo and is now a professor of information visualization at the University of Miami, also has a hand in Por Causa.

In this first part of a two-part interview, Lafuente talks about his new venture and why he chose data journalism as a focus for his new project. What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.

IJNet: How did the project come about?

Gumersindo Lafuente: I already had a few ideas in my head. I was very interested in data journalism analysis, the concept of [producing journalism] based on criteria derived from the analysis made by experts, and I was also interested in something that unfortunately is increasingly common in Spain: the issues related to the causes of poverty, especially those related to [other larger topics such as] agriculture, mining, land use, sustainability, education, health.

IJNet: What is the goal behind the project?

GL: In the beginning we chose this niche [poverty] -which I think is huge- because Por Causa is a very small, very humble project, and we need to find funding for each investigation we undertake. We don’t want to have fixed costs or a fixed team but teams of specialists, researchers and journalists ad hoc for each project.

And always knowing and being clear that Por Causa is not a news outlet, not a newspaper, not a magazine. Por Causa is a site that will try to work with media, it will try to help media do more time-consuming projects that they might not be able to pursue. Also, we intend to put information repositories and open our website for journalists anywhere in the world to use it for their work.

IJNet: The model is a bit like ProPublica in the U.S....

GL: That's our model. We would love to be like ProPublica, even a little bit! Keep in mind that Spain is a lot smaller than the U.S., with an extremely difficult economic situation right now and, realistically, we couldn’t aspire to anything like [the scale and success of] ProPublica. But ProPublica is a source of inspiration for Por Causa without a doubt.

IJNet: A first investigation was already published recently.

GL: Yes, [just a few weeks ago.] It’s actually the beginning of an investigation. We worked on a government database that showed how the Spanish government had invested funds in the fight against global poverty since 1992. We analyzed the data and, based on these tables and on an initial analysis, we will be publishing the results.

( ... ) In this research we have published information on how these funds have been sent to many countries in Africa and Latin America, for example Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras. Journalists from these countries could take a look at this data and investigate where this money has gone, since the database includes the amount of funds, years, which issues have been funded, which organizations have received the money to do those jobs in those countries.

IJNet: So the idea is that the site will also function as a database…

GL: Yes, the idea is to, over time, start building a database related to these topics. We are now trying to find funding to do research on child poverty and [social] exclusion risks in Spain. This issue of child poverty in Spain has not been studied until now, because this wasn’t a problem we had 30 years ago, or at least not a significant problem or a growing problem [like it is now].

There were always some problematic areas, but those were a minority and were receding. But now, due to the economic crisis, which has lasted for many years -we are in its sixth year now- we are starting to see the effects of the high level of unemployment, which currently exceeds 26 percent of the workforce and more than 50 percent among young people. We are starting to see the appearance of child poverty in new areas.

IJNet: You mentioned at the beginning of this interview that you were very interested in doing data journalism. Why?

GL: It is another important part of the project. Unfortunately in Spain, and although we have had more than 30 years of democracy after [Francisco] Franco’s dictatorship, our successive governments, regardless of their ideology, have not been able to pass a transparency law in Parliament.

Just right now we’re about to approve a law that is quite deficient, but in a few months it will be passed and we will have for the first time in the history of Spanish democracy a law of this kind.

Both professional journalists and citizens have to be trained to use these laws. We must demand that the Government, public offices and local governments provide data which, by law, must be public, and also provide it in the best usable format possible.

Because we think that, having this data available and by making an extensive use of transparency laws, journalism can access a lot of information that would normally be denied, and that information can better control the work of public officials.

What has happened in Spain up until now? The media got news almost exclusively from leaks and [human] sources which, in many cases, or in most cases, were interested parties. That type of journalism, which of course is valid and will survive, can be much stronger and much more independent if it’s also supported by data. If we can learn to manage data, if we persevere in pressing the government to make data available to the public, we will have a better government and a better society.

Updated Jan. 9 at 9:45 a.m.

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.

This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by Maite Fernández.

Photo CC-licensed on Flickr via José Carlos Cortizo Pérez.