Game of Votes
Entry type: Single project
Publishing organisation: Cuestión Pública
Organisation size: Small
Publication date: 2022-03-03
Authors: Claudia Báez, Edier Buitrago, Mateo Restrepo, Ignacio Gómez, José Escobar, Valeria Quiroga, Néstor Espinosa, Vanesa Restrepo, Sara Cely, Paola Téllez, Nicolás Barahona, Daneisi Rubio, Valeria Báez, Santiago Arias Niño, Eliud Felipe Torres Dóctor, Sergio Retavista, Marwin Hernando Tavera, Camilo Vallejo, Felipe Hurtado, Nelson Casallas, Carlos Rodríguez, Juan Pablo Reyes.
This project involved 22 people integrated by editors, investigative-data journalists, fact-checkers, lawyers, designers, video producers, developers, data scientists, and musicians. Colombian data journalists-editors Claudia Báez and Edier Buitrago were the directors of this project. Data-driven journalist Mateo Restrepo and recognized investigative journalist Ignacio Gómez complete the head of GoV. Part of this team was shortlisted in the 2022 Sigma Awards. Additionally, they were awarded the IAPA – Inter American Press Association Awards for Journalistic Excellence 2022 in Data-driven Journalism. Finally, Game of Votes was honored with the WAN-IFRA Latam 2022 for Best Digital Journalism Project.
Prize committee’s comments:
Game of Votes is a combination of great investigative data driven reporting, a creative presentation and the use of gamification as an interface to play with. An inspiring work of art that attracts users attention and at the same time allows audiences to dig into election candidate´s background data in a friendly way. Excellent work!
Game of Votes (GoV) is the universe built by Cuestión Pública to help Colombians decide how to vote in the 2022 legislative and presidential elections.
We created an innovative web application —inspired by the HBO television series “Game of Thrones”—which investigates the connections between wealthy families and political campaigns. We reveal political clans’ money trail and interests ahead of elections, aimed to captivate first-time voters.
GoV exposes the candidates of these political Houses that seek a seat in Congress and are running for office. CP cross-referenced, analyzed, and visualized information from at least 22 databases in Colombia and abroad.
Game of Votes (GoV) was launched ten days before the congressional elections and was widely republished in local media, precisely in the influence region of the Political Houses investigated. Cuestión Pública’s team participated in two Instagram live shows hosted by three popular Instagrammers to disclose the GoV’s findings. The shows reached 3,500 people in real-time.
The Game of Votes app’s release put on the media agenda the political dynasties/houses candidates in the Congress elections. Four mainstream and independent media outlets covered this topic ahead of legislative polls after our publication.
Three regional media outlets republished our investigations according to the ‘house’ of influence in their territories: Atlántico, Magdalena, and Norte de Santander departments.
Regarding presidential elections, we introduced “The Game” containing two interactive tools for both runoffs to help citizens create their presidential election forecast. Those tools had 3.6K unique visitors to the page.
Furthermore, we paid for digital advertising —Instagram & Facebook— published in the regions where these political families/houses have territory control (Atlántico, Magdalena, Norte de Santander, Santander, Valle del Cauca, Sucre, Antioquia, Córdoba, and Bolívar). Our information reached young and first-time voters between 18 and 34 years old.
Digital advertising obtained an average of 300 to 350 thousand impressions on social media. Ads reached 47% of men and 36% of women between 18 and 34 years old. In addition, we advertised in an independent digital media outlet with more than 500K followers on Instagram, whose audience is composed mainly of young people.
In some way, the GoV application helped citizens unveil the traditional political houses punished in the ballots. The actual Congress is composed of a greater plurality of political forces.
This app has hit 41.9K unique visitors to the whole GoV website.
For the “Game” section, we used Power BI as a tool for the 2022 first presidential runoff and our in-house development for the second one.
We created a database to track networks, members, enterprises, public resources, and candidates of Political Houses. We cross-referenced it with different public databases to identify connections between their members (relatives, allies, associates) and, government branches & control entities, and local public procurement. In addition, we published findings on abuses and irregularities in public resources.
Cuestión Pública scrapped open government databases, through R and Python scripts, for the massive extraction of information on public contracting and Congress bills.
The consolidated data of each Political House was compiled in Google Sheets files to facilitate the visualization of information and content control by journalists and editors and its integration with the web platform.
The Google Sheets connected to a test environment where we made all changes and updates on it before migrating to the public web application page. We could do this thanks to a script written in the Google Apps Script environment that works as a custom API for the data. Besides, we created a ‘custom’ application to cross-reference our reference list with the Colombian Electronic Public Procurement System procurement through an API.
A video producer made the GoV trailer video in 3D modeling based on HBO’s Game of Thrones intro. A Colombian musician recorded the original “Game of Thrones” song in Colombian Caribbean folklore —Vallenato— version and granted us its use for the main video of “Game of Votes.”
Context about the project:
For generations, political families have controlled territories in Colombia. They have maintained their power through the accumulation of money, abuse of power, and holding public resources management.
Through organized structures of politicians, business people, contractors, political cronyism, and, in some cases, paramilitaries and drug traffickers, a few families – political clans – who own large tracts of land have appropriated public business and the administration of the resources of the cities, the regions, and the Nation.
In a medieval universe, GoV shows how the clans manage to stay in power over time; how their relatives and allies are strategically placed in public positions in all branches of power; how the members of these political structures sign contracts while their partners or relatives govern; exposes the interests of the Houses in the economic sectors, their business assets and points out their nepotism.
Every election year, the same clans return with their —”Trojan horses”— candidates to obtain votes —with questionable practices— and hold power without changes, which is an obstacle to new local leaderships.
The Colombian National Streak in 2021 was a turning point in the political spectrum. Protests were led by young people fighting against rising inequality, police brutality, and abuse of power during the Iván Duque presidential term. Most of them were first-time voters. For this reason, young people gained importance during elections.
Game of Votes (GoV) translates to young citizens, the power game played by political houses running for general and local elections. We crossed popular cultural symbols —Game of Thrones and Colombian Caribbean folklore music— with political reality to expose the mighty political families controlling territories and reach a younger audience, determining the 2022 election results in Colombia.
GoV explained the complex phenomenon of power accumulation and political-business structures in a way that is understandable to a citizen, how their vote contributes to the powerful machinery of these families.
After publishing, we were disturbed by two people involved in our investigation. They requested to be retired from the Political House’s network in our publication because it affected their reputation. Supported by our methodology, we refused any changes.
For this investigation, Cuestión Pública explored campaign funding, public contracts of the Political House’s members, the clan’s companies in Colombia and abroad, the criminal activities documented in their environments, and the “jobs for mates” of those who participated in the 2022 elections that defined the political course of the country.
In 2022, a leftist president won office for the first time in Colombia.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
There are many lessons. The Game of Votes application was designed for mobile-first use; this is part of its success. We added a user-centered design to optimize displaying information and enhance user experience. Inspired by a medieval universe, we handled to engage a young audience curious about political and electoral issues in an innovative approach. Crossing popular culture and data-investigative journalism without losing rigor is a winning product that new audiences appreciate and consume.
Another lesson is to be inspired by gamification functions. The Game of Votes app displays data visualizations to explain simply the complex phenomenon of the accumulation of power in the Political Houses in Colombia. This application makes it easy for citizens to consume a large amount of data and information collected, organized, analyzed, and investigated through a unique methodology that combines classic investigative journalism, data-driven journalism, OSINT techniques, and a legal filter. GoV integrates 499 nodes of people and 316 companies.
Taking advantage of the new HBO TV series “House of the Dragons” hype, we created TikTok and Reel videos of some GoV Political Houses to increase engagement with the app and its information —even after Congress and the Presidential elections—.
Finally, integrating a multidisciplinary team is always a good choice. A team of 22 people made ‘Game of Votes’ universe, including editors, investigative journalists, fact-checkers, lawyers, designers, video producers, developers, and musicians.