New Online Tools For Investigative Journalists

April 14, 2015 • Recent, Specialist Journalism • by

With massive staff and content cuts at newspapers worldwide, it would be easy to assume that investigative journalism is on the decline. It is one of the most time-consuming and expensive ways of reporting. Yet a number of free online tools are enabling investigative journalists to dig up, disperse and display data in quicker, more cost-effective ways.

New platforms, such as the Investigative Dashboard, launched by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in Sarajevo, provide tools for journalists who want to expose illicit ties across national boundaries.

Investigative Dashboard catalogues country-by-country business records, from places as far apart and seemingly unconnected as Panama and Switzerland, the Balkans and Egypt. It also connects journalists with researchers working in their area of interest, who can help them dig up information from local registries or databases.

The platform has been involved with hundreds of reports, from tracking down businesses of Balkan drug lords, to finding Hosni Mubarak’s assets.

Conceived by Paul Radu, OCCRP executive director, and Justin Arenstein of the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR), Investigative Dashboard was set up to be an accessible virtual news research library for journalists. “We hope to always keep it free for freelance and non-profit media and OCCRP partners,” Drew Sullivan, OCCRP editor said.

The OCCRP, founded in 2006, was a pioneer of collaborative, cross-border investigative journalism by a non-profit organisation. This week it was given a special award at the European Press Prize and described as a “force for good” in independent journalism.

The OCCRP originally partnered with investigative organisations in the Balkans, such as the Centre for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism. Recently the OCCRP consortium has expanded to include several other centres around the world, such as Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, the International Centre for Journalists/Connectas, and the ANCIR.

The consortium has been behind several high-profile investigations, such as one that exposed organised crime operating behind private security companies in south eastern Europe.

A number of other open databases can aid Cross border investigations, such as Swiss Leaks’ look into secret HSBC banking files. These include OpenSpending which tracks government spending, currently in 73 countries. In the United States, OpenSecrets.org is particularly useful for finding information on federal campaign contributions and lobbying data. Another, OpenInterests.EU reveals who has financial or political interests in 28 EU institutions, through an ever-growing search engine.

Its American equivalent can be found at LittleSis.

Storing and Digging Through Data. One of the greatest challenges for investigative journalists is combing through copious amounts of documents for relevant information. DocumentCloud does not just allow for the storage of massive amounts of paperwork, but also enables easy footnotes and annotations, with each receiving its own URL for easy sharing. Yet everything remains private until the user is ready to make it public.

Tabula, used by investigative news organizations such as ProPublica, simplifies the otherwise tedious process of extracting and charting tables from PDFs. Import.io and ScraperWiki, as the names aptly imply, are useful tools to scrape data from websites.

Displaying Data. The free service Overview can read, analyse and search thousands of documents simultaneously. The open source tool, developed by the Knight Foundation and the Associated Press, also makes it easy to visualize and map data.

Google recently launched the free service, Fusion Tables, which lets journalists not only organize their own data into many tables and graphs, but also to fuse it with other data sets. The data can then be converted to a map, and seamlessly shared in a blog, sent as a link to collaborators, or even saved as a KML file to view in Google Earth. Silk also allows journalists to easily create tables, lists, groupings, charts and maps with their data.

Find Who is Tracking Journalists. In ultra-privacy sensitive Germany, journalists can now find out if the authorities have been investigating them. Frag den Diest (Ask the Secret Service) helps journalists to automate cover letters to send to the authorities. The service carries a political as well as pragmatic message, writes founder Netzwerk Recherche on its website: “Monitoring of investigative journalists by intelligence services and scrutinizing their informants and contacts is unacceptable.”
pic credit: OpenInterests.eu

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