For journalists investigating corruption, free tool offers millions of searchable documents

par Sam Berkhead
30 oct 2018 dans Investigative Journalism

Hoping to scour through public records and expose corruption, crime or wrongdoing? The Investigative Dashboard might be your best bet.

Developed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Investigative Dashboard contains a number of tools and resources meant to make it easier for journalists and civil society researchers to investigate and expose corrupt individuals and businesses. Its investigative tools include databases, visualization tools, and a search engine.

Journalists can also access the dashboard’s catalog of external databases, which links to more than 400 online databases in 120 countries and jurisdictions — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

We spoke with developer Friedrich Lindenberg about getting started with the dashboard and using these tools to their full potential:

Searching for leads

Investigative Dashboard’s database houses more than 4 million documents, data sources and more that are sorted into 141 collections.

Journalists can use a custom-built search tool, Aleph — which Lindenberg built himself — to search the database either by specific terms related to their investigation or by category.

“Often as a journalist, you want to find out ‘Where can I find information about this person or this company?’” Lindenberg said. “What you want then is a place where you can search as many data sources as possible. That's why we're bringing together a lot of government data, corporate records and other kinds of information from previous investigations that we have exclusive access to, and all of that is searchable.”

Additionally, journalists can get email alerts for their chosen search terms so they’ll always be notified of new developments regarding the individuals or companies they’re investigating.

“As we get more and more data, what we can quite easily do is run your list of people that you're interested in against all these sources and see if there's new leads popping up,” Lindenberg said. “One of the things we're trying to do with Aleph is create incentives for people to write down names of people they’ve investigated previously or would like to know more about. Then we will continuously send you a feed of stuff that we dig up.”

Mapping and visualizing

Investigative Dashboard links to Visual Investigative Scenarios (VIS), a free data visualization platform built to show networks of business, corruption or crime, turning complex narratives into easy-to-understand visual depictions.

Journalists can input entities like people, companies, political parties or criminal organizations, then draw connections between them and attach documents as evidence. Once a visualization is complete, it can be exported for online, print or broadcast use.

Research support

Journalists can also directly ask OCCRP researchers to help them investigate companies or individuals of interest. OCCRP has access to certain commercial databases that may be prohibitively expensive for some journalists to use. While users can’t access these commercial databases via the Dashboard, OCCRP researchers are there to lend a helping hand, Lindenberg explained.

“One of the cool parts of this is that basically, as OCCRP, we've purchased subscriptions to some commercial databases that are otherwise inaccessible to journalists,” he said. “We can't give everybody access to them because then we'd break the terms of service, but what we can do is have our researchers look up the things you might be interested and then give you back the documents they find there.”

Once users with a Dashboard account submit a ticket describing the person or entity they’re investigating, OCCRP researchers will search these databases to see what, if anything, comes up.

Uploading files

OCCRP encourages journalists to upload their own documents and data using its personal archive tool. After creating an account, journalists can upload documents, create watchlists and organize their research. By default, all uploaded documents are private, but users can share their documents with others or make them public if they choose.

To make sure no false data or documents are uploaded to Aleph, OCCRP bots periodically crawl through public documents to verify and cross-reference them, Lindenberg explained.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Momin Bannani.