In the aftermath of hurricane Maria in 2017, local authorities in Puerto Rico insisted that only 64 people died. In reality, there were three thousand hurricane-related deaths. This podcast episode from Radio Ambulante digs deep into the data from the office of vital statistics in Puerto Rico. From that analysis, a portrait emerges of negligence on a massive scale by the government, hospitals and institutions that take care of older Puerto Ricans. The old, the sick and the poor, those were the people that died after the hurricane. This episode follows the story of one death after the hurricane.
This project exposed the lies told by the Puerto Rican government regarding the death toll after Hurricane Maria.
More importantly, it investigates the causes that led to the deaths of the most vulnerable residents of the island. The reporting shows that the government’s Department of Family and Welfare Services did not have communications with nursing homes and other facilities that it is tasked with regulating and overseeing. They didn’t even know where these institutions were located. This was a deadly oversight in the midst of the historic power outage that followed the hurricane. The Department of Family and Welfare Services is supposed to be the main driver of aid for institutions like foster homes and nursing homes. Their inability to identify and reach these places delayed the arrival of assistance for several weeks, and sometimes for several months. For older Puerto Ricans with chronic health conditions, the wait was too long. Hundreds died in nursing homes as they waited for help to arrive.
Once the story landed on the Radio Ambulante feed, it generated a long-overdue conversation about disaster preparedness, government accountability and transparency in Puerto Rico.
As a podcast that features the best of narrative journalism and non-fiction storytelling in Latin America, we wanted to tell the story of the death toll in sound. This required an intense process of data sonification. After identifying the data set with death records, we worked with a data journalist who analyzed the statistics using scraping techniques, excel, python and other tools. After that, we engaged in a conversation between the editors, the lead reporter, our sound designer and musicians in order to turn the data into sound. We used the tools of our trade to do this: music and Hindenburg, our mixing program.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The most exciting part of this project was the journalistic conversation between experts in different fields who came together to tell a data-driven story based on sound.
Our lead reporter Luis Trelles worked very hard to access the death records from Puerto Rico’s office of vital statistics. Hassel Fallas, the data journalist on this project, then worked with those statistics for several months. As the team broke down and sorted over 25 thousand entries in death records, the full story of the deceased began to emerge. Our editors Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura led the conversation on how to turn that data analysis into a seamless part of the narrative. At that point, our sound designer Andrés Azpiri and musician Remy Lozano joined the conversation. The whole group brainstormed ideas about how to turn data points into elements of the sound design.
The result was a three minute section of the episode that features data sonification. It was focused on the real scope of daily deaths after the hurricane, and the stark contrast with the official government death toll. The biggest challenge was centered on how to preserve an exact relation between data points and the rhythms and beats that made up the sound design. It was a process of trial and error. The number of beats in each draft was broken down and analyzed by the whole team to make sure that it represented the data with total accuracy.
Our social media team, led by Jorge Caraballo, then turned that part of the episode into a stand-alone “audiogram”, a short sound piece that could be easily shared in social media to maximize its impact.
What can others learn from this project?
As podcasts and investigative audio shows gain prominence, data sonification will become increasingly relevant. There is a need to tell data-driven stories in sound without asking listeners to go look for a visualization package in the show’s website. The conversation about techniques and innovative approaches is just beginning, but there is something to be learned from the process we followed for this Radio Ambulante episode. The discussions in our team centered around storytelling, and how to approach data journalism and sound design in a way that feels organic to an audio format.
Big complicated numbers and figures are extremely difficult to convey in radio and podcast episodes. The abstract nature of data tends to pull the listener out of a piece. Data sonification is a way of grounding those numbers and relations with concrete sounds. The results can be dramatic. A well thought out piece of data sonification conveys the full force of a story in a way that will not fall on deaf ears.