Over several years, nearly a third of a beloved park in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, was turned into an elite private neighborhood.
The land was given away with no oversight or public explanation, and the names of the recipients were never released.
Reporters tracked down the history of each plot, showing that nearly half were given to government officials, public figures, and businessmen or their relatives — for free.
Reporters produced an interactive map of the entire territory with detailed profiles of each recipient.
Four accompanying stories explain how this was allowed to happen — and who was responsible.
The publication provoked an immediate, angry reaction on social media, receiving thousands of shares and comments in which Kyrgyz citizens voiced their disgust with official corruption and with the destruction of the formerly public land.
Kyrgyz reporters took creative opportunities to further amplify the reach of the project by conducting an in-person tour of the elite neighborhood in the park and streaming it online.
As is typical in Central Asia, however, the reaction from the government was muted. Almost uniformly, politicians and officials declined to comment or offered unconvincing evasions. President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who received one of the plots, was pressed to explain himself by multiple outlets. Though he promised to share legal documents showing that he did not profit very much from his plot, he has not done so.
In the days after publication, Kloop’s website was targeted by a DDoS attack and rendered inaccessible for around 24 hours, suggesting that the reporting had hit a sore spot.
Though there is little prospect for immediate change in the Ataturk Park case, the project has been recognized as having “broken new ground” for the region journalistically. In a first for a project of this scope, the “meticulous and in-depth reporting” was carried out entirely by local journalists — who conceived it in the first place — with the guidance of international editors and support staff.
The project laid the groundwork for a new generation of independent investigative journalism in a region that badly needs it.
Reporters spent nearly a year using a variety of tools, techniques, and sources to trace the history of the many dozens of privatized plots in Ataturk Park.
The process began by pulling the identification numbers of the plots from cadastre maps and using these to purchase individual land records for each plot — a costly and lengthy process.
This information was placed into a master database that was used to establish each plot’s history, identify patterns and priority areas, and begin building the map of the park.
This information also contained references that enabled reporters to dig deeper. Now knowing where to look, they obtained and reviewed thousands of pages or decrees, court records, and other government documents and filed many dozens of information requests to learn which mechanisms — and which officials — were responsible for giving away each plot.
Meanwhile, each person identified as a recipient became an entry in a separate database that tracked their family connections and businesses.
To write full profiles for each recipient, reporters interviewed dozens of people and even went undercover, posing as buyers, to get a glimpse of the park’s new crop of mansions and villas.
Finally, to create the interactive map, a drone was used to film the park and compare what the records showed with reality. Sophisticated stitching and tiling techniques were required to make the map available online. A free open-source library by Knight Lab called Storymap.js was used to create an interactive layer over the map to display icons, hot spots, and profile information.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The inaccessibility of government documents presented this project’s most serious challenge.
Obtaining the initial decrees on the basis of which the land plots were awarded was the most difficult part. Though these documents should have been public, they were not. When reporters tried to obtain them through the land registry, officials refused to provide them. Information requests to the mayor’s office also resulted in refusals. Reporters then had to knock on the doors of dozens of officials’ offices in the local administration before being directed to archives where some of the documents were available.
Since some of the plots had been merged or split, arriving at a final, definitive list of privatized plots was an additional challenge.
Some of the land records purchased online also turned out to be missing critical information or to have had underlying data removed entirely. Additional information requests became necessary to fill in the gaps.
All of this work — resulting in the most comprehensive set of land records for a journalistic project in Central Asia — was done by very young reporters who had never before done this kind of work. They were essentially learning on the spot.
Finally, publishing the project simultaneously in English, Russian, and Kyrgyz — while fixing last-minute technical issues with the map, fact-checking each profile, and addressing usability concerns — was a major technical and project management challenge. The collaboration of a large team of reporters, editors, technical staff, and others was essential to getting it done.
What can others learn from this project?
One critical lesson is about database design. Unlike many other data-driven journalistic projects, the reporters in this case were not analyzing an already-existing database — they had to create it from scratch and populate it manually.
To fulfill the project’s journalistic goals, the database had to be structured in a specific form, and this had to be carefully thought through ahead of time to avoid repopulating or reconstructing the entire thing. To solve this challenge, the reporters and editors held a series of brainstorming sessions ahead of time to figure out which information they needed.
Another important lesson is to understand how the system works — before embarking on an investigation. It is important to know which agency has which information, how to obtain it, and who else might have it. The reporters had to undergo a crash course about Kyrgyz urban planning — who can approve what, who holds which records, which ones are legally required to be public, and how to obtain them.
Persistence is important too. When some officials withheld important documents, reporters had to make repeated requests, often showing officials excerpts from the law and arguing that the information should be public. In some cases, this aggressive approach was successful.
But creativity is important too. When some documents could not be obtained from official channels, reporters approached the homeowners directly and, acting as potential buyers, were able to obtain proofs of ownership and other materials.
A final lesson is that storytelling is no less important than data analysis. And reporting for storytelling should start at the beginning of the project. Data projects can sometimes be dry, so looking for characters and color is important.