“The whole deal is converting data into knowledge”

“Challenge the Political Candidate” – “Rete al candidato” in Spanish – is one of this years Data Journalism Award nominees. Alejandro Fernandez Sanabria, journalist at the Costa Rican weekly newspaper El Financiero about the making of the app: “The whole deal is converting data into information and knowledge.”

Rete al candidato

“Challenge the Political Candidate” is a digital tool created to verify the veracity and precision of the political public debates in Costa Rica with the use of social media, mobile devices and the active participation of citizens. The fact-checking process used modern data analysis skills based on public datasets, next to the traditional reporting skills.

Inspiration

“We wanted to prepare a special non-traditional project to cover the presidential campaign that took place from November 2013 to April 2014. From the previous campaign, in 2010, we noticed that a lot of figures and conclusions told in public debates were false and the media published them without any type of critical filter. So, inspired on projects such as PolitiFact from the Tampa Bay Times, we decided to create a web app. We are, according to our knowledge, the first fact-checking project in Central America.”

Presenting the nominated production in an elevator pitch, what would you say? What inspired you to make this production? Why did you work by yourself/in a team? How did you get the data needed? Which tools were used making this production? What was the hardest part of the process? Why? According to you, what does the future of data journalism look like? Do you have an advice for starting data journalists?

Teamwork

“To create very good and precise content we prepared a team of journalists with formal education on Economics and Public Policy Analysis. We watched and listened dozens of interviews and debates. We also reviewed the formal government plans of the five most relevant presidential candidates. To do this you need a lot of hands! Also, the fact-checking process demands the views of different people to protect fairness and balance.”

Data please

In search of data to work with, Alejandro says a lot of data was just asked for: “We asked for it or we looked for datasets uploaded in the websites of public institutions. We created this file were you can find all the data we used. Our readers had full access to our data.”

Problems

“The whole reporting process was hard, but we had two main problems: 1- we had questions but there was no data available to answer them; and 2- the data was available but the public institutions denied us access to it or they took a lot of time to answer. Therefore, many times we had to generate information from the datasets of public polls using statistical inference methods.”

The future

According to Alejandro Fernandez Sanabria journalists should dedicate more time and effort to learn how to properly convert data into knowledge: “I personally feel we are avoiding the difficulties of obtaining the skills to really analyze data. We see a lot of training in visualization and infographics but that is the very last stage of the process. Are we really trained for data analysis? Do we know the basic statistics and econometrics?”

Advice

“I am starting too, but my advice would be: deal with the hard stuff first, try to really have skills on data analysis, deeply understand the scientific methods, learn to think the way scientists do, try to be sorrounded by the smart people rather than the powerful and influential people. The whole deal is converting data into information and knowledge. Once you do that you can think about good visualization and anything else. I would add this: read anything written by Philip Meyer and Robert Picard.”

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