Polina Uzhvak

Country/area: Russia

Organisation: IStories

Organisation size: Small

Cover letter:

I published my first texts seven years ago in a free local city newspaper. I was in high school then and barely someone read my articles. Even then, I realized that the problems of garbage dumps and bad roads are more interesting than concerts and celebrations which I was asked to describe. I wanted to write about problems and hoped that it could solve them or at least draw attention to them.


During my study at the university, I was an intern in different Russian outlets, such as Novaya Gazeta and Takie Dela. I wrote reports about ecology, poverty, problems of disabled people, homeless rehabilitation, animal shelters. I liked my work but realized that personal stories and interviews with experts do not show the whole issue objectively. So I started to search other formats.


Math and statistics have been always fascinated me (oddly enough for a journalism student in Russia), that’s why I chose a master’s program in Data Journalism. Russian Data Journalism is young. Some teachers had barely understood what we were going to do, but the course of data visualization was really useful. I was inspired by our teacher  Alexander Bogachev, who explained to us the basics of data analysis and data visualization. With him, we went from basics, such as “how to open a .csv file”, to interactive dashboards and the first data stories.


My first data story was about the phenomenon of secondary orphanhood. It is when adoptive parents return orphans to Orphanage. I published it in 2020 in IStories, together with my mentor Sonia Savina, we prepared a video data report on this topic. We have combined the data and personal stories of the people. I liked this format and tried to use it in the following texts. My internship in IStories grew into a full-time job, and at the end of 2020, I became a member of the IStories data department.


2021 was the most interesting and productive year of seven years in the field of journalism. I worked with some of the best data journalists in Russia. I used all skills I had learned during my studies and continued to learn from more experienced colleagues. For a whole year, I have been looking for social topics that are interesting to me and that no one has ever covered using data and numbers. Ecology problems, workers’ rights, problems of orphans, schools in the regions, election fraud — these are the topics I worked with.


In our editorial, data-journalists not only analyze data and write texts, but also prepare visualizations, organize trips to Russian regions, and write scripts for video data reports. Moreover, we make video tutorials for beginners in data journalism. My work has become multitasking and I find it exciting.


2021 was the year when I started doing the journalism I dreamed of. Sometimes I was wrong, chose the wrong strategies and made mistakes, but it was a great experience that gave me useful skills.  


But so far, my data investigation and reporting have not yet led to serious changes. Official services ignored the problems even if all the evidence was presented. It’s demotivating. But this year I will try to be more persistent. To be considered for the portfolio prize at this year’s Sigma awards would be an important sign that I am moving in the right direction.

Description of portfolio:

This year I wrote some articles about issues that have been mentioned in public but have not been proven with data yet. For example, housing for orphans. Russian law guarantees free housing for orphans over 18 years old. According to the research, about 200’000 orphans remain homeless and this number increases each year. Orphans wait for their flats for years: in some regions over 40 years. 


Russian government keeps data in so-called statistical forms. These are large Excel files, one per each of the 85 Russian regions, with a lot of pages. These files are unsuitable for data analysis. I found a method how to collect the necessary data from such tables even without programming skills. This method was useful for my other articles. I also wrote a detailed tutorial on it for journalists.


Then I wrote about schools problems. I decided to research the topic after my dad said that his school amenities have not been changing for 30 years. The school has modern computers — but a hole in the floor instead of a toilet.


I found that more than 6’000 school buildings do not have even the basic amenities and 11% of the buildings required capital renovation. The main difficulty was a data limitation. Many problems such as mold on the walls or rotten floors cannot be counted. To highlight them I took an interview with parents and principals. Some of them refused to talk because they found these problems embarrassing and were afraid of the consequences. But I was able to find heroes who find childrens’ health more important than a school reputation.


I made the second research about Russian schools with Yulia Alykova. To find populated places situated far from schools we made a script in Python which matches a settlement with the closest school and shows the distance between them. We discovered that at least 100’000 schoolchildren who live far from school are not provided with school buses. So kids have to walk to school along a highway and through a forest. Sometimes it leads to accidents. 


The other three data investigations show how official statistics hide serious problems of labor rights, ecology and poverty. 

I wrote about data manipulation that leads to workers’ deaths. According to the International Labor Organization, there are between 500 and 1000 non-fatal accidents at work for one accident that resulted in death in developed countries. There are only 22 non-fatal accidents for one death in Russia. This is an indicator of incomplete data. Most workers were afraid to talk, but some confirmed anonymously that employers force them to record work-related injuries as domestic injuries. As a result, employees continue to work in dangerous conditions and die.


For the story about air pollution, I examined all available government datа, standards, federal programs. I discovered that standards were loosened, the state monitoring covers only 20% of Russian cities and does not track all emissions. The results of such measurement cannot be reliable. But the government continues to rely on them and ignore suffering people.


I also wrote about poverty. Аccording to official statistics, the poverty level in Russia is decreasing. But studies based on the deprivation model don’t confirm it. For example, almost half of Russians cannot afford to buy two pairs of shoes for a season for each family member. I have combined government statistics and data from scientists’ research to show why the problem is invisible and why the living wage in Russia cannot be associated with normal life. I implemented scrollytelling to explain the topic in a visual way using Flourish and JS library Scrollama.

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