How to search for information in data black holes: Barbara Maseda and the Inventario project

Barbara Maseda

Image from Knight Center

Ahead of a Global Investigative Journalism Conference panel on reporting in countries without press freedom, Liana Bravo spoke to Cuban data journalist Barbara Maseda about launching a data portal for journalists in an environment where no official data is published.

Bárbara Maseda has dedicated the last four years to publishing data where none exists. “In Cuba we use investigative journalism tools to search for information that elsewhere in the world would be in a press release,” she says. Other journalists’ data problems, such as receiving data in formats that are difficult to analyse, “are my highest aspirations”.

In 2018 she created Inventario’, an open data project for Cuba. “In Cuba data is treated as confidential information. The government does not give data — or when it does, they are not disaggregated,” she says.

In Cuba there is no access to information law, society is not digitised, and until last year Internet access was restricted to government institutions.

“The government does not provide any data to independent journalists. Official sources refuse to talk to you.”

The project aims to be a source for independent Cuban journalists to obtain the data they need for their news. “A kind of news post for Cuban media abroad,” adds Maseda, who has been living in the United States for the last two years.

Two collaboration approaches

To do this, the project is based on two collaboration strategies: on the one hand, it publishes data on relevant topics openly, so that they can be used by any media or person who needs them.

On the other hand, it collaborates privately with media organisations, looking for the data they ask for.

“The project is like what a media data unit would be,” she says. Her only requirement is that after the news has been published the data must remain public.

The aim is to spread the culture of open data use: “The same data can be used in different media, each one with its own style, with its own audience, with its own approach.

“The idea is to share; to collaborate in research.”

Maseda was inspired by another project, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Bureau Local initiative, which fosters collaboration between journalists to reveal stories that have an impact on communities and supports local journalism in the UK.

But how is it possible to do data journalism in such a restrictive environment? Maseda uses a number of techniques.

Search for alternative sources

“You have to look for the counterpart,” she suggests. “Understand Cuba as a country that is in interaction with other countries that do report.”

For example, to find data on Cubans’ trips to Russia, she uses the Russian government’s open data system.

“The relevance of access to information laws is that they allow you to make specific requests and obtain information that is marginal, or secondary, to those countries but very relevant to you.

“You have to see who publishes what interests you and with what level of disaggregation and frequency.”

She also draws on information from international organisations.

“There are things that are not published in the country but that the government passes on in reports that it is obliged to send to international organisations.”

She has also resorted to crowdsourcing, while “recognising its statistical imperfection”. The method was used to track protests on Twitter (like this one about Internet prices) and to report on power cuts in the country.

“Something is better than nothing,” she points out. “Since there are no statistics from other years, we don’t know if 400 blackouts is too much or too little — there are no comparison patterns. So part of the idea of Inventario is also to create a historical record [that can be used for comparisons].”

Maseda is also in contact with a network of journalists from other countries to look for collaborations. “There are journalists who do not mind giving you the part of the data you are interested in,” she says, with one of the objectives of the project being to collaborate with regional research on topics such as migration. “A story is almost never trapped on a country’s border.”

The importance of experimentation

Inventario homepage

For Maseda, it is essential to get out of a comfort zone — “not to think only as a journalist, but as an artist, as a technologist.” She gives the example of using satellite images to discover geographical elements, such as deforestation, that the government does not want to report.

A fellowship at Stanford University following a Masters at Birmingham City University allowed her to approach this type of experimental reasoning.

“In archaeology, for example, there are ideas for locating archaeological remains using military satellites that can see underground, saving decades of investment.”

In addition, she uses the data publication models of other countries as a guide.

“When there are no official data sources which you can use as a starting point, you have to create your own databases, adapting them to your reality.”

If there is an incomplete field, she looks for contributors who can complete it.

“And of course, sometimes we think there is nothing and surprisingly the data is there, or there is data related to the topic or that can serve as a starting point.”

Funding the opening up of data

Maseda is now looking for funding for her project, which has attracted 2000 followers in a year. The idea is to be able to form a work team and cover more topics.

So far, Inventario has functioned as a blog where Maseda is in charge of all activity, from data mining to social media. To do this, she uses free tools.

“The design of the site is based on many freebies, such as programs courtesy of organisations that are interested in supporting journalism. For example, for visualisations I use Flourish, which is a free service.”

The important thing, she reflects, is: “Do not start from the idea that it is impossible. [The attitude should be] ‘let’s try, because maybe it is possible’. And never stop looking.”

Bárbara Maseda is a graduate of the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University (now the MA in Data Journalism). She was awarded a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship  to study at Stanford University in 2017. ‘Inventario’ emerged as a result of this fellowship. Liana Bravo is a student on the MA in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University.

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